By Christine Chiao
A quarter century has passed since Nancy Reagan unveiled her 1982 "Just Say No" drug campaign. By now, the U.S. audience has seen the gamut of films on drug abuse with Steven Soderbergh's 2000 masterpiece Traffic as the standard by which such films are held. Derek Yee's Hong Kong action/drama film Protégé is a recent attempt to join the genre. Written and directed by Yee, Protégé stars Daniel Wu as undercover cop Nick who has been living as the right-hand man of Andy Lau's Kun for eight years in the pursuit of breaking one of the Hong Kong's top heroin rings.
Yee might have meant for the film to sketch the emotional toll that drugs can take on those involved with them -- from druglords to addicts to the undercover cop trying to stop both. Yet, Protégé continually falls short in fleshing out character and plot. Halfway into Protégé, it becomes a meticulously detailed account of drug-making and trade logistics. This impressive attention to the process draws attention away from the storyline as it makes a third of the film become more of a how-to on the drug trade. Those involved in the making of Protégé note that real undercover cops were consulted to bring authenticity to the film. The time spent cataloging the logistics of the drug trade detracts from what could have been spent on the exploration of the characters.
It begins with Nick asking whether emptiness or drugs is more frightening. What follows after Nick's question is a flashback of all that has brought him to that point. This particular narrative strategy demands that the ending must reconnect fittingly with the beginning. Wu's portrayal of Nick convincingly carries the mystery of the undercover cop quite well as he never rises above the few variations of anger and stoicism until the end. Throughout most of the film, Yee has Nick stay unfailingly heroic even as the lines between his professional and personal lives blur. Despite living a double life as long as he has, he sticks to his core principles. Not tempted by the monetary rewards that glamorize the drug trade, he lives a simple life in a rather rundown apartment eating instant noodles instead of dining at pricey restaurants. There is little mistake as to what team he plays for as the audience is privy to Nick's good deeds whenever he is not tending to Kun. Though the ending in theory makes the story seem like it travels a full circle, it lacks the plot motivation to substantiate why it ended the way it did.
Flashes of subtle humanity brought by Lau aside, Kun is never expanded beyond his greed and drive for self-preservation. As such, one is left wondering how Kun can justify aiding the destruction of others, while being constantly vulnerable to his own pain and mortality. Yee does give Kun some dialogue to share a bit of his delusion. However, too much focus on Kun's ruthlessness stamps out whatever complexity could have been brought to ease the deep anxiety of a diabetes-suffering drug lord who seems devoted to his family.
Zhang Jingchu's single mother Jane is similarly bogged down as she alternates between being pitiful and weak. Like Lau and Wu, Zhang puts in an admirable performance of a drug addict in anguish and pain, but not enough time is spent expanding on why Jane cannot resist drugs even as she seems to recognize that her daughter Jing Jing's welfare is at stake. Jane's husband as played by Louis Koo is an unfortunate walking exaggeration of drug addicts. His shamelessness is only rivaled by Jane's helplessness. In contrast to Wu's seriousness, Koo brings a rather misplaced levity, intentional or not. Though Kun's wife does not appear in the film as much as the other characters, Anita Yuen is the only actor whose character matches her nuanced performance. Kun's wife is deeply loyal to him, but she is also aware of his secrets, unbeknownst to him. Quite simply, her character made sense. With the exception of Jane's husband, the characters all show potential for what could have been deep and incisive looks into those connected to drugs. And so, the effort the actors put into their portrayals notwithstanding, they were unable to bring to the characters the depth already denied by the script.
If only one element could be chosen for further development, it would have to be the various manifestations of the master-disciple relationship given the film's title. The Chinese title of Protégé (Men Tu 門徒) is better translated as "disciple," typically one of a religious following. Most obviously, the title refers to Nick's position in relation to Kun. As master to Nick, Kun builds up Nick's knowledge of the trade so that he can transfer the business to him. However, the notion of men tu also sheds light on otherwise blind spots that Yee neglects to explore in the plotline. Jane experiences a twisted form of master-disciple relationship, bowing to her body's pressure to continue her addiction to heroin. More helpfully, it hints at the attachment that Nick felt for Kun, otherwise buried by Yee's portrait of Nick.
It is speciously easy to pick out what precludes Protégé from achieving the same impact as Traffic. The impulse to do so is strong, because there are qualities about it that wistfully indicates a potential to become a powerful drama. All it needed was that final round of tweaking that never took place. Whereas Steven Soderbergh's Traffic carefully laid out the interconnections of people involved in drugs via a triptych with a strong ensemble cast, Protégé revolves the plot around Nick's perspective. In funneling the story through Nick, the characters including Nick are each one-dimensionally defined by their relationship to drugs. The way that Soderbergh chose to allow the ramifications of drugs to be felt by his cast and subsequently by the audience contrasts deeply with how Yee steers the audience toward high moralism. Instead, one is left to ruminate on how Protégé plays like its two different films in one and how the cast got shortchanged as their characters seemed to have been assigned to personify either a cliché emotion or trait. And herein lies the issue: all of the aforementioned problems are symptomatic of Yee's desire to make the film encompass more than he was able to develop in 108 minutes.