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Friday, February 20, 2009

PROTEGE -- DVD review by porfle

If you saw DONNIE BRASCO (or better yet, read the riveting book by Joe Pistone, who lived it), you'll already have an idea of the conflicting loyalties and constant fear of discovery experienced by undercover cop Nick (Daniel Wu) in the offbeat Hong Kong cop thriller PROTEGE, aka "Moon To" (2007).

For years Nick has been living as the trusted protege to Lin Quin (a makeup-aged Andy Lau), an ailing heroin kingpin who wishes to make a last big score so that his family will be set for life when he dies. Not the usual cartoon villain, Lau portrays Quin as a practical businessman who loves his family and rationalizes that his drugs only ruin the lives of weak-willed lowlifes. But when a botched drug raid indicates a rat within the organization with Nick as a suspect, Quin displays his ruthless and lethal side in a tense interrogation scene.

As Donnie Brasco developed warm feelings for his aging mob mentor Benjamin 'Lefty' Ruggiero over the years, so Nick finds himself caring for the dying Quin and his unsuspecting family. But the pain and suffering caused by Quin's heroin is brought home when Nick meets Fan (Zhang Jing Chu), a single mother living in his apartment building with her adorable three-year-old daughter. Fan is a wretched addict hiding from the abusive husband (Louis Koo) who got her hooked and who uses their own daughter to help him smuggle drugs. As Nick becomes more involved with Fan, trying his best to help her and her daughter, his inner conflicts slowly begin to reach a breaking point.

PROTEGE isn't your typical Hong Kong actioner--there isn't a single chop, kick, or really outlandish stunt--but the human drama is pretty intense. Just as you start to think it's going to be all about police vs. bad guys, the story goes in unexpected directions as Nick's relationships with Quin and Fan keep him in constant emotional turmoil.

The very first scene gives a good indication that we're in for something unusual. With brilliantly sunlit clouds swirling past outside, Fan shoots up in her crumbling apartment, then slowly sinks onto the couch, dead to the world. As harsh light shines through paper-patched windows and ragged curtains drift in the breeze, a bright red doll carriage rolls into the frame. Fan's daughter approaches her mother tentatively, plucks the needle from her arm, toddles over to the wastebasket, and daintily drops it in, as though she's done this countless times before. The scene is both horrible yet somehow dreamily ethereal, and a provocative way to start a movie.

Former Shaw Brothers actor Derek Yee's direction is sharp and imaginative yet remarkably unflamboyant, allowing him to emphasize certain scenes using only subtle stylistic changes. When he slowly rocks his camera from side to side during Nick and Fan's disturbing sex scene (Nick is awakened on the couch by a heroin-addled Fan and then frightened by her ecstatic convulsions during intercourse) it isn't merely to make the visuals more kinetic but to convey her disorientation from reality and his own confused feelings.

Certain moments related to Fan's shocking deterioration seem right out of a horror movie, while time-lapse shots of roiling clouds speeding past her slumlike apartment building (Yee photographs this location and its slovenly interiors beautifully) are unsettlingly surreal. Conversely, the film assumes a colorful travelogue look when Quin takes Nick to Thailand to meet the main man in the heroin chain. Beautiful country settings with hazy blue mountains and dazzling poppy fields serve as a stark contrast to the dark, miserable end result of such an endeavor.

Yee's screenplay is intended to enlighten us about the various aspects and consequences of heroin trafficking, and from this pastoral starting point (which sometimes has the bland instructional tone of an educational film) we're shown how the raw materials are refined in Quin's warehouse "kitchen" and turned into bricks of almost pure heroin for distribution. Early on, a mixup of ingredients that threatens to ruin an entire batch leads to a tense montage with Quin and his employees scrambling to salvage it. Yee and editor Kong Chi-Leung speed things up here and almost have us rooting for the bad guys to succeed, which gives us an idea of what Nick's daily life must be like.

The one really riveting action sequence in the film comes when a group of Customs officers, unaware that Nick is an undercover agent, apprehend him after he leaves the kitchen and brutally beat him until he leads them back to it. Suddenly all hell breaks loose as Quin's "cooks" dash to destroy the evidence while the Customs officers break down the steel door. Their leader is played by Liu Kai Chi, who was a renegade cop in 2005's KILL ZONE (aka "Saat po long") and is even more wonderfully out-of-control here. Graphic violence ensues, and a harrowing escape attempt from a window to a balcony below leads to one of the most realistic high-fall death scenes ever filmed. This sequence definitely got my heart pounding for awhile.

Daniel Wu brings a quiet strength and intensity to his role--we can see how Nick cares not only for Fan and her child but for the devastation Quin's family will endure when his crimes are exposed. Andy Lau is so likable as Quin that we can almost sympathize with him until he expresses his contemptuous disregard for the misery he causes. As Fan, Zhang Jing Chu does a remarkable job conveying a delicate waiflike quality one moment and then transforming into a mindless degenerate the next. (Described as a "cunning linguist" in Bey Logan's commentary, she had to learn Cantonese for the part.) Louis Koo comes off as a bit of a caricature as her no-good husband, yet he's interesting to watch and his eventual fate is nicely-played. Director Yee himself appears as Nick's boss on the police force. As for Liu Kai Chi, well, he's a wild man. I love the guy.

In 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound, the DVD looks and sounds fine. While this Dragon Dynasty release contains only one disc, there are the usual substantive extras, including the highly-informed and enthusiastic commentary we've come to expect from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. There's a well-produced "making of" featurette that lasts almost half an hour, followed by low-key, thoughtful interviews with Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing Chu, and producer Peter Chan. These indicate the depth of interest in the subject by all involved and how much research was done, particularly in talking to actual addicts and trying to discern what leads them to pursue heroin use at the cost of their own lives. The theatrical trailer is included, and the film can be watched in either the original Cantonese or the English dub with subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.

PROTEGE is that rare thriller that is so emotionally involving that it doesn't need to keep the viewer's interest stoked with a succession of fights and stunts. Rapid-fire editing and flashy camerawork are used sparingly (and are all the more effective for it in certain scenes), with the emphasis placed instead on rich characterizations, gripping suspense, and some images that are genuinely haunting. "Why do people take drugs?" Nick keeps asking himself throughout the story, and at the end, he finds out the hard way.
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