門徒 [Moon tow—Cantonese; Mén Tú—pinyin] (Protégé) 2007 Hong Kong (108 minutes) written and directed by Derek Yee [Yee Tung-Shing]
This is a good local story about heroin trafficking in Hong Kong, in Cantonese but aimed at an international audience.
The movie is something like a Hong Kong version of the 1989 BBC mini-series Traffik (Traffic 2000 U.S.), seen through the eyes of an undercover Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau officer. It looks at the narcotics trafficking ‘industry’ more than the politics, as well as people the industry affects: addicts, police, and various levels of heroin traffickers, from Hong Kong ‘kitchens’ where wholesalers convert pure import for distribution to local dealers, to a warlord opium producer in Asia’s Golden Triangle.
The story reportedly is based on the experiences of Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau officers. The narrative incorporates an engaging variety of authentic details involving the production, transportation, and distribution of heroin. There is no stylized action film ‘action’ such as acrobatic martial arts and ‘endless clip’ automatic weapons fire.
The film opens with a young uniformed policeman’s meditation on drug users. We then watch the same man, ‘Nick’ [Lee Chi-Lik] (Daniel Wu), in business casual attire quarterback a complex drug exchange on the fly and under police surveillance while talking to Narcotics Bureau police on a separate ‘burner’ phone. The quick-paced sequence is well-composed, deftly edited, and realistic.
Nick is an undercover officer in the Narcotics Bureau, a loner whose dangerous work is his life. He apparently has worked undercover his entire police career of seven years. In this time, he has become the right hand man—the ‘moon tow,’ or ‘protégé,’ of the title—to Lin Quin (Andy Lau), who controls half of Hong Kong’s heroin trade and whom Hong Kong law enforcement authorities want to bring down.
Quin’s mantra is ‘Never take risks.’ He is a businessman like Tony Soprano, operating every day in an environment in which the downside of the lucrative financial gain his business realizes is a long prison term if caught and convicted. And like Soprano, Quin has personal and family issues: the gangster is a diabetic in dire need of a kidney transplant, with a demanding wife (Anita Yuen) and a difficult tomboy teenager, among other things.
Nick’s boss, Police Superintendent Miu Chi-Wah (Derek Yee, also the film’s director), and other higher-ups praise Nick’s work. Nick’s dilemma, as a straight cop without any apparent proclivities for acquiring money and power or using drugs, is that his life revolves around ‘industry’ people he has got close to but ultimately is setting up to bust, and addicts in the mean streets where he lives to maintain his cover.
As the story progresses, Nick gets involved with Fan [Pang Yuk-Fun] (Zhang Jingchu), a neighbor with an adorable toddler, separated from her husband. Fan is a heroin addict. Nick discovers her condition when they first have sex, when his fingertips find lesions which the camera shows us on the back of her legs behind her knees where she has shot up.
Nick is truly a good guy. The story plays out around his young man’s passion and inexperience, large enough to take on the seemingly impossible in shouldering a risky role in Hong Kong’s ‘war on drugs,’ and in trying to help a vampire-like neighbor with a small child ‘kick’ her taste for blood.
Quin’s deteriorating health and his questions about Nick’s loyalty after Hong Kong customs police conduct a ham-handed bust of Quin’s kitchen accelerate his need to designate a successor.
Note to police (and warning to squeamish viewers): do not fire live ammunition at close range at steel doors, especially with colleagues standing nearby; and do not reach through holes on steel doors when you do not know who, and with what implement, is on the other side.
Nick accompanies Quin, his family and amorous single sister-in-law (He Mei-tian) on a trip ‘to pay tribute to Buddha’ in Thailand, where Nick will be either ‘made’ or made simply to disappear.
In the vicinity of Mae Sai, a small town in the heart of the Golden Triangle, near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos, Quin and Nick ride elephants to meet the genial drug warlord General Chachai (Nirut Sirijanya). The three discuss the industry Big Picture with the aid of ‘market research’ provided by the good offices of the United Nations in its 2005 World Drug Report.
The general notes that surrounding governments have begun to crack down on the industry. He points out a crater near his compound where rival international drug producers dropped a 2000-pound bomb to ‘make a point’ that the Golden Triangle has seen its day. Fields of American-style corn attest to the fact that foreign do-gooders now overpay farmers in relative terms to grow alternative crops. The general also is aware that the market is trending away from needle-injected heroin, toward psychotropic drugs such as Ecstasy and K (ketamine).
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Fan’s estranged, ne’er-do-well junkie husband (Louis Koo playing a Toshiro Mifune-like rogue) tracks Fan down house-sitting for Nick and trying to kick her heroin habit.
Without unnecessarily spoiling plot turns, the significance of Nick eventually sending Fan’s husband to Singapore as a drug courier is that this country executes people caught bringing in even relatively small amounts of illegal narcotics (at that time, 15 grams had been the heroin limit, though the law appears since to have eased).
The story comes full circle to the young uniformed policeman’s meditations on why people use drugs; though this full circle begins a new cycle.