Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Protege 门徒 (2007)

Drugs are bad, mmm'kay?

Dereck Yee started out as an actor in the late 1970s, and has been nurturing a parallel career as a director. What distinguishes his films from most other directors, consequently, is his ability to bring out convincing and intense performances from his casts, perhaps because of his background and continuing work as an actor himself. With screenwriting and creative talent in perennial short supply in Hongkong film, Yee's approach as an actor's director ensures that while he may not have perfectly-written scripts, the delivery and performance of his actors elevates any movie he directs to a higher standard than expected. Occasionally, when he does have a sparkling script, Yee can perform real magic with his cast, such as in One Night In Mongkok or Drink-Drank-Drunk. With the advent of the Infernal Affairs trilogy and the Election series, Hongkong film returns to the gangster-and-cop genre in a big style, and Dereck Yee's Protege is an acknowledgement of this trend. Is there cause for worry, since Yee hasn't directed or scripted any gangster-and-cop genre film in more than a decade, and that much of his reputation as an actor's director rests on his unconventional treatment of standard genres

At first glance, Protege looks like standard post-Infernal Affairs fare, with Daniel Wu playing the mole to Andy Lau's crime lord. Even in its opening minutes, Protege looks like a standard cop-and-gangster movie, with a 5 minute police dragnet operation on the roads of Hongkong. This, you gather, will be one of the more standard and unsurprising films from Yee and correspondingly, one expects a well-done genre story. This time round, Andy Lau's crime lord is a major player in the field of heroin processing and sales in Hongkong. A self-styled "banker" (the "House" in casino terminology), Lau is the fatherly and genial Eric Tsang-esque mentor to his promising protege Daniel Wu, who of course happens to be an undercover cop who has spent 7 years in this operation, waiting for the eventual raid that will net not just Lau's entire operations staff, but his suppliers as well. Much of this movie will, if you haven't guessed, focus on scenarios that continually test and reaffirm their loyalty and friendship, but Dereck Yee's script makes Lau's crime lord a very intruiging character. Forget that he's a fuddy duddy family man who's planning to hand over his reins to the protege - the crime lord protests too loud about the ethics of profitting from selling drugs, and probably has some deep issues to work out in this movie, far more than any undercover cop is expected to have.

For Wu's character, Yee throws away the Infernal Affairs playbook to develop on the drug trafficker's relationship with one of the end-users of his products, a young addict mother who struggles between the needle and her vow to kick the habit. Zhang Jingchu shines in this role as the vulnerable mum who veers from hope to disappointment, manic energy to drugged lethargy. Her performance also brings out the best in Wu, whose spiritual dilemma in this film stems not really from his undercover status or his deception of his "good boss", but from his status as a trafficker and a friend who tries to wean Zhang from heroin.

While Yee brings out the best performances from his principal actors, the script for Protege is weaker than his typical film. Character development is problematic at best: Lau's conflicting justifications for trafficking drugs indicate a troubled personality, but nothing is ever made out of that; the movie does build towards an eventual Infernal Affairs face-off between the crime lord and his protege - a standoff that curiously lacks any emotional payoff because there wasn't any proper buildup in the script; and there are 2 puzzling scenes that drag on beyond the climax that draws questions about uncharacteristic motivations for a major character. At worst, character development is non-existent: Anita Yuen is disposable as the wife of the crime lord, while a daughter has a bizarre side-plot with Wu (a twisted arranged match made by the crime lord and the missus) that appears quite suddenly and is dropped with the same speed as well.

Protege may not be one of Yee's best movies, and it may not be one of the best post-Infernal Affairs movies, but the movie is worth watching based on the strength of the performances alone. Dereck Yee proves again that he alone can bring the best out of his actors, even without a strong script or character development.

First published at incinemas on 15 February 2007

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