Protégé Review

Drugs are bad. We know this because the film industry tells us so. Ironically, of course, the film industry is a big fat hypocrite because a) everyone who takes drugs does not end up dead on their lavatory with their trousers round their ankles and b) the real harm that is done by drugs is not the harm to the end user, who after all has chosen this lifestyle.

Protégé is the story of Nick (Wu), a narcotics agent who has been working deep undercover for eight years, crawling up the greasy pole of a drug gang. He has finally reached the position of trusted confidante to Banker (Lau), head of one of the Hong Kong heroin cartels. Nick has enough evidence to indict Banker, but is under instruction to remain undercover in order to expose the man behind Banker, and bring down the whole organisation.

Nick, despite his best efforts, finds himself corrupted by the easy money and power as he becomes closer to Banker, who is dying, and treats Nick as his heir apparent. The upside of the sleazy underbelly of heroin culture is a world of luxury and privilege; the finest hotels, champagne and caviar. But at the end of every day Nick comes back to his grotty one-bedroom flat and his neighbour, Jane. A heroin addict and poverty stricken single mother, Jane’s vulnerability appeals to Nick and they begin an affair. He also cares for her daughter, and for a brief moment Jane’s life is full of hope. But then her junkie husband reappears…

Protégé wants to be a powerful condemnation of drug dealers – not the little people, but the kingpins who, safe in their anonymity, enjoy the fruits of a trade that deals in death. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from pointing out the addicts’ own complicity. Both Jane and her husband blame each other for their addiction, telling exactly the same story of how they got hooked in the first place rather than admitting that they have a problem. But as with all films about drugs, there is also a rich cinematic pleasure in the visual language and rituals of drug taking – a kind of drug porn – that undermines the moral message. There’s cooking the heroin in the spoon, prepping the vein, watching the drug sucked into the gleaming needle, that drop of blood curling into the syringe – we’ve seen it thousands of times and even if you don’t like needles you will be waiting for the sigh and the slumped body and the post-coital expression of pleasure on the junkie’s face. When that’s mixed with images of first class travel to exotic countries, it’s easy to forget about a little orphaned girl and her mother’s face being chewed off by rats in a Hong Kong slum.

Bizarrely, the film undermines its message still further by combining an almost documentary reeling off of facts about the drug trade with a slapstick, comically over the top violence, particularly in a scene where law enforcement officers raid Banker’s surprisingly small and low-tech laboratory. And some of the subtitling is very odd indeed.

Drugs are bad for you. Everyone knows this, but according to WHO statistics there are 200 million drug users worldwide. Protégé knows that drugs are bad, but is fascinated by them nonetheless.

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