Reviews Too Late: Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon

by wjw on October 1, 2014

A title like that tells you pretty much all you need to know, neh?

Directed by my onetime creative associate Tsui Hark, Young Detective Dee is a prequel to Tsui’s 2010 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which I reviewed a couple years ago.  The first film was set at the court of the steely, rather homicidal Empress Wu (Carina Lau), China’s only reigning empress.  Carina Lau still plays the character, but the story is set earlier, when she’s ruling China through her husband, the amiable Taizong.

The film opens with a huge Chinese fleet en route to thrash the Fuyu Kingdom, which historically was a landlocked Korean kingdom, also known as Buyeo, in what is now Manchuria, and which had ceased to exist long before it could trouble the Tang Dynasty.  Be that as it may, the majestic fleet is soon destroyed by a massive, tentacled sea monster, and the scene shifts to the capital of Luoyang, which is beautifully rendered by CGI.

Detective Dee (Di Renjie) was a celebrated Tang Dynasty courtier and jurist, known as the Sherlock Holmes of China, though with the added bonus of being a real person, and not invented by a Scottish physician.  (The real Judge Di is said to have judged 17,000 cases in one year without a single appeal or reversal.)  In this film he’s at the beginning of his career, and is ordered to report to the Da Lisi— basically Empress Wu’s dreaded secret police— who have been ordered to solve the problem of the sea monster— and solve it in ten days, or their leader Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) gets the chop.

One way Luoyang hopes to deal with the monster is to dedicate to it the city’s favorite concubine, Yin Ruiji, played by AngelaBaby— yes, that’s her name— who I last saw in the postmodern martial epic Tai Chi Zero.  Concubine Yin is famous for refusing to sleep with the rich and famous men who pursue her, and it turns out she’s secretly in love with a penniless poet.  (She’s so virtuous that one wonders how she got the title of concubine in the first place.)

Anyway, she’s confined to a temple and surrounded by priests, which of course makes her the target of a kidnapping by fishermen from Dondo, apparently a tribal area in Indonesia.  Dee foils the kidnapping, but Yin is carried away by the batrachian Kappa, a Lovecraftian amphibian, after which the plot gets, well, complex.

There are more sea battles, underwater martial arts, weird medical science, and a lot of detection from Judge Dee, whose mental process is presented very like Guy Richie’s version of Sherlock Holmes.  Judge Dee and Yuchi Zhenjin battle while hanging from ropes, while spinning through the air, while bounding from one boat to another, and at one point Judge Dee gallops to the rescue on a horse that can race underwater.

Mark Chao plays Dee as hyper-competent and somewhat amused by the bumbling officials around him.  And, in a moment of political satire, Dee drives Lovecraftian corruption from officials by making them drink their own pee.

Then, at the end, there’s a huge fight with the sea monster itself.

As special effects-driven historical epics go, this is one of them . . . though with the added bonus of Tsui Hark’s beautiful photographic composition.  Everything’s so damn pretty.

Tsui’s wonderful imaginative gifts are constrained, rather than enhanced, by the reliance on CGI.  Tsui’s classic films  give the impression that they were largely improvised day-to-day, whereas all the CGI requires planning.  The result is a tighter script than usual, but fewer delightful surprises.

The movie was a huge hit in Asia, so expect more sequels.  Let’s hope we get to see more of Carina Lau’s wonderfully sinister Empress Wu.

Three and a half chops, only because I’m getting bored by movies in which anything can happen.  When anything can happen, nothing has meaning.

But still . . . pretty.

TRX October 1, 2014 at 3:37 pm

> When anything can happen, nothing has meaning.

The last several seasons of Doctor Who, and shows like “Warehouse 13.”

Apparently for movie-land, “technology” and “magic” are fully interchangeable concepts.

John F. MacMichael October 2, 2014 at 5:39 am

“…for movie-land, “technology” and “magic” are fully interchangeable concepts.”

When you make the making and marketing of illusions your career, illusions become your reality.

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