At the very beginning of Derek Yee's Protégé (Moon to), Nick (Daniel Wu) sorta spoils the ending of his story by spilling the beans on what's going to happen. He points out who's going to die, how it will affect him, and asks a potent question to his audience: "Which is worse, the emptiness or the drug usage?" Yet, he really doesn't reveal much of anything about what he's going to endure, both physically and emotionally. That's for us to uncover for ourselves, and it's quite the rollercoaster. Protégé takes everything suspenseful from Infernal Affairs hand-in-hand with everything heartbreaking from Requiem for a Dream and clashes them together into a potent, often moving drama -- and one of Hong Kong's better entries from the past ten years.
Interestingly, Protégé almost feels like an afterthought of Alan Mak and Felix Chong's undercover crime trilogy. Instead of Tony Leung, we've got Daniel Wu taking the role as the ambitious policemen heavily entrenched in a narcotics syndicate. Heroin is their poison of choice, schlepped to street denizens in "U.S. Dollars" (greenbacks) and other, more heavily-cut varietals that crop up once other dealers gets their mitts on them. At the core is Quin (Andy Lau), a two-faced family man with an ailing kidney condition that drags him closer to retirement with every day. Once Nick wraps up his daily undercover shenanigans, he heads home to a dilapidated hideout that sits window-to-window with a starving, heroin-addicted mother named Jane (Zhang Jing Chu) and her bright-eyed daughter. Embodying the portrait of chivalry and diligence, he tries to tear her from the intoxicated world of twitching shoot-ups and neglected care to her child -- all while staying the course in climbing the ranks of the drug syndicate. Soon, Nick finds his way into a trustworthy-enough spot to take over Quin's business, which ultimately opens that final door he needs to pass through in order to tear down the empire.
Derek Yee, former Shaw Brothers character actor turned actor-friendly director, appears to set his film up as a full-throttle gunfire spectacle geared to whet action lover's appetites. That, to our benefit, is not Protégé's focus. Instead, it takes the high road by concentrating on Nick's complex atmosphere, a world where he's juggling two women -- possibly three, if you count his barely-mentioned girlfriend -- and three like-minded identities in a chaotic labyrinth of dishonesty. He suffers through physical and mental abuse in each, leaving little room for Nick to feel stable as he stone-faces through his betrayal around Quin. On top of that, he fights with a see-sawing call to take care of a young girl as her mother ebbs and flows in a sea of heroin. Helping Jane allows him to scatter little bits of candid humanity into his life, which actually works better for his mental state than it does for her struggle to support her child and fend off her rotten husband (Louis Koo, Election). While there are multi-yard foot dashes, some raining bullets, and a car chase or two, we're more working with a hard-boiled drama that spends its time building an effective story instead of a dazzling firefight.
Protégé's success is largely based on a triad of robust performances, each of which is near-perfect in casting and execution. Daniel Wu has a disposition about his acting method that communicates courage and weakness through stoicism, something that carries over from his performance in the infinitely-underrated martial arts epic The Banquet. His talent pumps Nick up with just the right amount of personality, one that's not too charismatic to allow weakness to shine through. Zhang Jingchu is also excellent as his drug-lusting neighbor, infusing her role with little bits of Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly both from Requiem for a Dream -- and even traces of Ewan McGregor's bit in Trainspotting -- by taking on a surreal, disturbing persona. Their semi-violent interplay, all the while trying to keep the young girl docile, boils to an unnerving head on many occasions based on their opposing magnetism.
The big surprise, however, is Andy Lau as Quin. Not that it's surprising that the veteran actor pumps life into the role, but that he stands out as much as he does with Daniel Wu and Zhang Jing Chu alongside him in two attention-grabbing performances. After seeing many of the man's pictures -- from House of Flying Daggers and Infernal Affairs to Jiang Hu -- it's comfortable to say that this part ferocious/part transitional depiction of an ailing drug king is his best to date, almost a antithetic shadow of the character he played in Infernal Affairs. He finds a way to make the audience, along with Nick, somehow empathize with a family-oriented death dealer, selling him wholeheartedly as a somewhat earnest entity while he cashes in on polluting the bodies of those around him. He and Daniel Wu strike up a brilliant dynamic, all accentuated by Lau's terrific outing.
Though well-acted and intriguing in its own right, Protégé's ace in the hole lies in editing and camerawork. Getting the right actors and shooting the blood-pumping action sequences already build a strong framework for this joint HK/Singapore film, but Yee and editor Kwong Chi-Leung piece it all together into a restrained, smooth cocktail of rapid clips and lingering moments. The editing can grow very quick in the picture's frenetic moments, mainly the Aronofsky-inspired drug scenes. It doesn't get as grotesque, but you get the gist. Yet it's in those frames that hang around just the right amount of time to emphasize key moments -- whether it's to capture Nick sizing up one his situations or to add character moments with Quin and Jane -- that bring everything together in a complete and thematically rich light, giving the suspense-packed film a firmer grasp on patience and visual attention than many others of its type.
Derek Yee has really done something great within Protégé's modest bounds. He's made a genre-minded thriller that stitches together drama and drug abuse in seamless fashion, all the while sneaking in that somewhat obligatory message of addiction's dangers in classy and evocative fashion. There's even a powdering of imagery from scene to scene, most of which allow for us to identify with Nick's character. He feeds wild birds that could possibly have an "avian flu" (read: helps those with problems) and aids injured dogs to try and find comfort in his life, something that again reminds us of his good-natured humanity as he's frantically buzzing around in a hive of quick drops and doped-up victims. All of this, though we learn the outcome well in advance from Nick's mouth, stays electric and keeps us guessing until the end -- a sign that Protégé's damn good at what it's out to do.
Video and Audio:
As part of The Weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty line, Spine #35, Protégé arrives in its original 2.35:1 image and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. In general, we're working with a very mediocre, hit-and-miss transfer. Some scenes, like the early conversation with Andy Lau and Daniel Wu and the heavy-on-the-orange-lighting confrontation late in the film, sport plenty of detail with relatively low levels of edge enhancement and substantial contrast levels. Other portions are subpar and feel very one-dimensional; Nick's birdfeeding scenes and many instances in stairwells are like this, for example, while also showcasing poor digital pixilation and contrast issues. Many sequences lean to noisy, heavy grays and greens instead of deeper blacks, while also showing some noticeable aliasing and edge enhancement through some light renderings that give the image that "baked" look. It goes to both side of the spectrum -- good looking scenes look great and more pedestrian ones look merely average, while some poor looking instances are rather rough.
Thankfully, the Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is much more consistent. It's a robust track that fills the room up with surround design, most times with musical accompaniment. Some ambient effects trail to the back, while a few gunshots and crashing effects tickle the lower-frequency channel. Vocal clarity rings true and distortion free, though a little thin in spots, while the music stays strong throughout. Even though Dragon Dynasty hasn't included a DTS track, this is a relatively low-dimensional design that is supported well with the given track. Subtitles are, thankfully, not subtitles, and are mostly grammatically accurate and legible. An English 5.1 dub is also available, along with optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles.
Commentary with Hong Kong Film Expert Bey Logan:
If you've heard a Bey Logan commentary before, then you know what you're getting into: non-stop information, ridiculously dense references to the HK catalogue, and a few "name checks" here and there. In short, it's a pretty fantastic commentary for the film that touches heavily on the car chase at the start of the film, Logan's positive and negative impressions of many scenes, and the language barriers crossed between Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai.
Making of Protégé (15:12):
Everything in this featurette is pretty standard fare, mixing behind-the-scenes shots with music-accompanied interviews. Since there's much more in-depth material from the actors and producer later in this disc, the main things to watch out for are interview time with Andy Lau and the off-stage bits and pieces. It's basically fifteen-minutes of marketing fair and regurgitation of plot and character motives.
Exclusive Interviews (62:40 total):
Listed as three separate segments -- Undercover and Over the Edge: Daniel Wu (26:22), Chasing the Dragon: Zhang Jing Chu (21:29), and The Dealer: Producer Peter Chan (13:49) -- these are essential three lengthy, down-to-business interviews with members of the cast. Each of them have very minimal footage spliced into their tome, so the time markers listed are pretty darn close to the actual amount f time each one speaks. Daniel Wu's segment is the lengthiest and most in-depth, as it goes into his building a dynamic with Andy Lau (giving insight into the actor) and his established rhetoric with director Derek Yee. Zhang Jing Chu might be a little less skilled in English than Daniel Wu, but she gets into the thick of her content just as much as he does. She elaborates on her language barrier as well, along with the way that director Yee made her feel comfortable on-set. Finally, we're left with a pretty standard producer interview with Peter Chan, one that talks about the construct of the film and how he had to adapt to Yee's more delicate and writer-driven style of filmmaking.
We've also got a spoiler-filled Original Theatrical Trailer that should only be viewed after the film to preserve some of the film's key scenes.
Comparable to Infernal Affairs' nailbiter suspense on a heroin trip, Protégé hits a whole lot of high notes as it tosses together drama-based character interactions and drug abuse theatrics. Outstanding performances from Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing Chu, and especially Andy Lau compliment the complicated narrative well, while Derek Yee's grasp on human emotion and simple complexity really shines within his well-written story. It has rapidly become one of my favorites in the genre, probably because it seamlessly melds all its understated action together with a substantial, gripping narrative. This Dragon Dynasty entry makes up for the oft-subpar visuals by providing a few solid supplements and a well-tuned Dolby Digital track. At a higher price this presentation wouldn't earn approval quite as easy, but since this is $20 -- certainly to be had for far less than that -- Protégé comes with a quick and substantial Recommendation.