Mon 21 Apr 2014
YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON. China Film Co-production / Huayi Brothers Media, 2013. Original title: Di renjie: Shen du long wang. Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Angelbaby, Lin Gengxin, Carina Lsu, Kim Bum. Screenplay: Kuo-fu Chen, loosely based on the historical Judge Dee. Director: Tsui Hark.
Judge Dee, the historical 7th century Chinese magistrate brought to the western world by Robert Van Gulik, was a figure of myth and folklore in Chinese literature, though nothing quite like the Detective Dee we see here and in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the 2010 film this is a prequel to.
The Dee of Chinese folklore is a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Uncle Abner, James Bond (he’s quite a ladies’ man), Daniel Webster, and Abe Lincoln. Detective Dee is closer to Ellery Queen as played by Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan as Charlie Chan. (*)
Here Dee Renjie (Mark Chao replacing Andy Lau in the first film) has been dispatched from the province of Bing to join the Dai Lisi, the imperial investigative service in Luoyang, the holy city of the Tang Dynasty in 665 AD, and it’s an inopportune time to arrive with Empress Wu Zeitian (Carina Lau returning from Phantom Flame) wrapping the Emperor around her little finger, a war with a far off province, trouble being stirred by the Dondo islanders, and the Imperial Fleet at the bottom of the Pacific thanks to a sea dragon.
Then there is Yin Ruiji (Angelbaby, and well named), the beautiful courtesan wanted by every nobleman in China, hated by the jealous empress, chosen by the people to fast and pray for deliverance from the sea dragon, and incidentally the target of two different kidnap plots and a mysterious sea creature that appears to be half man, half fish.
She is also in love with a commoner Mr. Khen (Kim Bum) who owns an exclusive tea shop that caters to the imperial court with a tea blend made only for the nobility, and who disappeared six months earlier.
Just a typical day in a great detective’s life.
If you know the films of Tsui Hark (A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon A Time in China) you know they well be hauntingly beautiful to watch, the action will be relentless, the camera work and photographic effects spectacular, the wire work exceptional. Tsui Hark’s films are extraordinary visions, thought the plots are sometimes as complex as a Chinese puzzle box.
Young Dee has no learning curve, he is introduced fully blown watching a procession by the locals to enthrone Yin Ruiji to drive away the sea dragon. It is also the first time he spots the Chief Minster of the Dai Lisi, Yuichi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) whose life and career are on line with the Empress if he does not solve the mystery of the sea dragon. The friendship/rivalry between Dee and Yuichi is the basis for much of the films inner tension as Yuichi’s skill, rank, and experience are more than matched by Dee’s brilliance and audacity.
When Dee uncovers an attempt to kidnap Yin and foils it he finds himself fighting two sets of kidnapers, ordinary criminals, and a water creature of incredible power. Joined by Yuichi Dee ends up imprisoned where he meets Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) a young surgeon apprenticed to the Imperial Dr. and soon to be Watson to Dee’s Holmes.
Dee’s escape to prevent a second attempt on Yin will team him with a reluctant Yuichi as they fend off Dondo islanders behind the attempt, and Dee recognizes that it is not Yin, but the creature they are after. When Yin reveals the the monster is really her lover, Yuan Dee must capture him and try to cure him to solve the mystery.
Yuan was poisoned by a parasite that made him into a monster, and the parasite has been placed by the Prince of the Dondo into the special tea made by the tea master. All of the court including the Emperor have been poisoned.
The plot grows more complex as the empress dislike of Yin, who comes from a warring province, leads to her life being endangered, and it becomes clear the Dondo prince has created and trained a mighty sea dragon and plans to invade and crush the Tang Dynasty. Dee and Yuichi must race to find the island fortress of the Dondo and destroy them or the empress will execute Yin.
This leads to a terrific vertiginous four-way fight between Dee, Yuichi, and Shatuo against the armored Prince hanging from cliffs far above the hideout where the sea dragon is hidden. The death of the prince isn’t the end though, as they have to survive the voyage home and an attack by the giant beast, a sort of giant flying manta that previously sank the entire Chinese fleet.
This epic is entertaining, and mystery fans will enjoy Dee’s Holmesian moments when he gets to display his talents as sleuth with brilliant deductions. There are some nice photographic effects illustrating how Dee’s mind works in observing and deducting.
Other than the name, this has little to do with the historical Dee or Van Gulik’s version of the tales, but is an entertaining, full color, and apparently 3-D epic in and of itself. Some of the CGI isn’t all that good, but it is made up for by the imaginative camera effects and director Tsui Hark’s skilled hand at this sort of thing. The wire work is well choreographed, and the actors easily recognizable.
The film ends with the Emperor presenting Dee with the mace of justice, the symbol that he is the the sword of justice for the kingdom, even to the misbehavior of the imperial family (a fact not appreciated by the ambitious Empress Wu).
The film is fast-paced, action-filled, intriguing, and an interesting blend of summer blockbuster and detective story — replete with dragons, monsters, a tender beauty and the beast story, and two mad scientists. Both this and the first film are worth seeing for the spectacle and the sheer fun. Depending on how you feel about Hark’s better known work you will almost certainly enjoy this one.
(*) If anything, this reminded me a little of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandor novels, though more fantastical.