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Capsule Reviews

Protégé    (2007)
Talking about ratings may not be the most appealing of review openers, but the Hong Kong ratings board just makes it so easy. Either they hand out restrictive ratings like Spring Festival red pockets, or they blithely choose to ignore stuff that in other markets would have raised red flags, and none too festive at that.

Which one is the lesser or greater evil, that's up to each viewer to decide

Protégé contains some very explicit drug use depictions and a pervasive mood of terror more fitting in a genuine horror flick. Frankly, there's more scary content here than in the typical Asian frightener. Thus, we're counting our blessings that the board didn't notice. Maybe they just missed this one? Well, whatever the case may be, you shouldn't.

This is a powerful movie, coming from a powerful team of filmmakers headed by Derek Yee, Hong Kong's greatest directorial hope right now and the guy that gave us the excellent One Nite in Mong Kok and Drink, Drank, Drunk. Naturally, his latest brings back Daniel Wu for another round of effective temperance and reserved menace, although this time the guy is accompanied by the type of performances that tend to drown out the most potent of thespians.

Seriously, sit down to behold Protégé and enjoy Oscar-caliber acting from some unexpected, surprising angles. As often happens, it's not the leads that shine more than everyone else, but rather their supporting cast. It helps to have the film bestowed with melodramatic but subtle visuals, heaps of startling moments of violence and a distinct aversion to holding back. All these combine to a product of impressive properties, even if it doesn't tell the most innovative of stories.

And the story is where Protégé could have done somewhat better. It fields a slightly formulaic recounting of the antics of undercover cop Nick, who over the course of seven years managed to infiltrate the drug producing enterprise of appliance seller cum chemist Banker (Andy Lau). The criminal mastermind isn't just adept at shirking narcotics and customs agents, he's also a dedicated family man and suffering from diabetes-related kidney problems. Thus, the Banker's looking to leave his business in the right hands, trusting Nick with the job (hence the title).

But Nick is a man of conflicts and everyday alertness to the suffering this world purveys left and right, and so begins to notice his pretty female neighbor (Zhang Jing Chu) and her delightfully cute little girl as they exist in poverty's uncool squalor. Aside from cooking up a few instant noodle packs to keep them from starving, Nick also realizes the neighbor is quite seriously on the needle and hooked on heroine, the same substance he's been in effect helping the crime syndicate put on the streets for years.

His moral dilemma becomes acutely obvious when the neighbor's de facto husband (Louis Koo) shows up one day and proceeds to cause trouble. There begins Nick's resolution to truly bring his beloved mentor down, having decided that it's not merely doing business when you're making your money keeping people addicted and weak.

There's a substantial component of valuation to Protégé as it delves into the reasoning behind drug dealing, using narcotics and the things these contrast with, such as loyalty, family ties and the path each individual either chooses or is forced onto.

None of it is really too deep, but you won't mind, since the movie dishes out whatever ammunition it was given with great aplomb and style. As mentioned before, it's no ordinary crime also-ran. There's more here to do with various horror and mystery genres than with the average triad epic, but that's only the beginning. From quite early on one comes to respect Zhang Jing Chu's uber-believable performance, she's that good. From the wracking convulsions of trying to kick the habit, through the fake frailty of needy junkies to the heart-breaking desperation of a mother, she's got it all down pat brilliantly.

And words can only begin to describe Louis Koo's input. The guy's just so good this writer almost went out of the theater to go get him a statue. He's so adept at suspending disbelief it takes a while to even recognize him for the slick pop star you thought he was. But that's all over with now that we've seen his full range. The man simply shines and it breaks us up that, like almost all Hong Kong motion pictures, the world at large will dismiss this occurrence as secondary to other sources.

That's the thing with Hong Kong actors, we get so used to seeing them in Mahjong Girlfriend 12 and My Left Ear Loves Demons 5, and then they come out with this brutally touching sort of quality. Go figure.

There's also memorable scenes with crime movie veteran Liu Kai Chi (SPL, Colour of the Loyalty, Infernal Affairs 2), whose semi-demented jocular conduct fits perfectly with the role of a cruel but sympathetic customs agent.

On the downside, Protégé doesn't bring anything new to the collective literal psyche, it just tells an old story better than most. It does commit the sin of stereotyping, not only with respect to the tormented cop and lovable crook brackets, but also when showing a trip the two take to Thailand, where everyone's either a warlord or a demure, destitute supplicant.

But such minor glitches are easily forgiven in an otherwise amazing release. Watch it and learn a thing or two. Class not dismissed.
Lee Alon 2/15/2007 - top

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 2/15/2007 Lee Alon

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