Derek Yee's Protégé comes in a long tradition of films such as Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (1991), Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000) and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) – films that use the palatable frame of crime drama as cover to smuggle in all manner of semi-documentary material about drugs' sources, middlemen and end users.

The trouble is, though, Yee somehow gets the balance between real-world facts and genre thrills all wrong. Protégé emerged out of Yee's research for his previous crime film One Nite In Mongkok (2004), and it shows: for it is difficult to shake the feeling that Yee's latest film is a collection of interesting research data, with a plot stitched together from other, superior films, and tacked on, apparently, as an afterthought.

Copy picture

Perhaps the film's finest moments come in its disorienting opening scenes, although even these seem somewhat second-hand. A time-lapse cloud, borrowed straight from Rumble Fish (1983), rushes over the Hong Kong skyline, bringing with it a decidedly hallucinatory atmosphere. In an apartment below, Jane (Zhang Jing-chu) falls into a narcotic stupor after injecting heroin into her arm, only for her very young daughter to appear and helpfully remove the needle – in an echo of the shocking opening of Terry Gilliam's Tideland (2005). A uniformed policeman appears in the room, which is now otherwise empty, and poses lugubrious questions in voice-over about whether users are driven to addiction by heroin itself or by the emptiness of their lives. This almost dreamily incoherent sequence will be picked up and explained by the film' rather dark close, but in between, we find ourselves in the familiar 'double-agent' territory of Infernal Affairs (2002), only here presented in far less subtle form.

In fact, the cop seen at the beginning hardly ever wears his uniform. Nick (played by Yee's own protégé Daniel Wu) is an undercover officer, who for eight years has steadily been gaining the confidence of high-level, white-collar heroin dealer Lin Quin (Andy Lau). Afflicted with diabetes and related kidney problems, Quin is looking for a successor, and decides to make Nick his protégé, showing him – and of course us – all the connections and contacts that make his lucrative business possible.

Over the course of the film, we are taken on a guided tour of the drop-offs where the unprocessed heroin reaches Hong Kong's shores, the heavily protected 'kitchen' where the bricks are 'cooked', and the fields in the Golden Triangle where the opium poppies are cultivated. Meanwhile, we get to see the dead end of the trade through Nick's deepening relationship with his neighbour Jane - an impoverished junkie torn between her cravings for the drug and her need to give her daughter a decent life.

Is Nick beginning to lose sense of which side he is on? Of course. Does family man Quin cut a disarmingly avuncular figure for a career criminal? You bet. None of this really surprises in a film so prominently featuring Lau, star of the original Infernal Affairs, although at least here the actor defies some expectations by portraying Quin as a sickly individual who keeps as much distance between himself and his deadly trade as possible. There are certainly ironies to be savoured in his character's contradictions: on the one hand he is happy to sell heroin, on the other he is furious to discover his rebellious daughter smoking cigarettes; he has utter contempt for the drug habits of his customers, and yet he himself has a self-destructive addiction to sugar, as well as needing to shoot up on regular doses of insulin.

Yet if Quin, and Nick too, are engaging and well-performed characters, where the film goes seriously wrong is in its inability to settle on any consistent tone. The drug drops play out like slickly bland action, the scenes with Jane are over-sentimentalised (with an over-sentimental soundtrack to boot), there is a gratuitous (and gratuitously weird) sex scene (as though the 1980s never ended), a violent police raid on the 'kitchen' dissolves into a bludgeoning dismemberment lifted straight from the horror genre (where it should really have stayed), and the arrival of Jane's estranged junkie husband, absurdly overplayed by Louis Koo, introduces a note of unintended (and unwelcome) comedy.

What ought to be a complex, serious moral drama ends up being merely disjointed melodrama, while Nick's final fate does not link up sufficiently with what has preceded to have its proper impact. Ultimately, Protégé is a derivative mess, unable to give viewers already familiar with its influences the hit that they need. Even those who have never encountered this sort of thing before are still unlikely to find much new in the film's message, reducible to the truism that heroin is bad.

Reviewed on: 03 Apr 2008
Share this with others on...
Protégé packshot
A drug lord unwittingly grooms an undercover cop to be his successor.
Amazon link

Director: Derek Yee

Writer: Derek Yee, Long Man Hong, Go Sun

Starring: Andy Lau, Daniel Wu, Louis Koo, Zhang Jing-chu, Anita Yuen, Nirut Sirijanya, He Mei-tian, Liu Kai Chi, Cheung Cheong, Derek Yee, Tang Tak, Yuen Po, Tsei Tsz Tung, Christina Tang, Kylie Wong

Year: 2007

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


Search database:

If you like this, try:

American Gangster
Infernal Affairs