Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Mark Chao, Feng Shao Feng, Lin Geng Xin, Ethan Ruan, Sandra Ma, Carina Lau
Runtime: 2 hrs 12 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 26 July 2018
Synopsis: Mysterious events keep happening in Luoyang (capital of ancient China Tang Dynasty): warriors wearing totem masks perpetrate crime all around the city; the fox outside the bar begins to speak human language; dragons on the column of the palace come alive; the Heavenly Kings in the temple show its angry face. Dee (Mark Chao, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon) needs to solve the puzzles behind the mysterious cases, while facing obstacles from Empress Wu (Carina Lau, Detective Dee series).
Lest there be any doubt, the four heavenly kings which the sub-title refers to the four Buddhist gods, each one of whom watch over one cardinal direction of the world. It is in a temple with towering statues of these four deities that the head of the Tang Dynasty’s Justice Department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) retrieves the all-powerful Dragon Taming Mace, but not before a fierce one-on-one with a menacing Taoist fighter wielding a pair of curved blades. That scene is the only reference to the divinities in the movie though, which builds its sleuthing around a treasonous plot to overthrow the Emperor Gaozong (Chien Sheng) and Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) by an ancient sect known as the Wind Warriors.
The second prequel of Tsui Hark’s highly successful series, ‘Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings’ picks up immediately after the events of the previous film, with Mark Chao once again reprising the role of the brilliant Di Renjie. Worried that Di Renjie would use the Mace that he has been bestowed with by the Emperor against her, Empress Wu orders that Yuchi steal the Mace, further assigning a shady quartet of sorcerers to assist him. Besides the aforementioned Spectral Blades, there is the sinister-looking priest Huan Tian, the hunchback witch Night Ghost, the swordsman Smoke Volant, and last but not least the beautiful female assassin Water Moon (Ma Sichun). Though initially tasked to follow Yuchi’s commands, the members of the Clan turn out to have their own designs towards the Mace, and it isn’t long before Empress Wu decides to sideline Yuchi in favour of Huan Tian.
Meanwhile, as Di Renjie and his loyal associate Shatuo (Lin Gengxin) contend with the sorcery of the Mystic Clan, they become wary of an even more malevolent group exploiting the power-hungry and insecure Empress Wu to bring down the kingdom. In signature Hark convolutions, the said Wind Warriors was once from India, helped one of the previous Emperors seize the throne, was subsequently condemned to ignominy, and counts among one of its leaders a certain member known as the Faceless Lord. But most significantly, both the Wind Warriors and the Mystic Clan are masters of sorcery, employing various methods of illusion and delusion to confuse, distract and eliminate their enemies. In time, not only will Shatuo find an unlikely kindred companion in Water Moon, he and Di Renjie will also come to enlist the help of the powerful monk Master Yuan Ce (Ethan Juan) to defeat the Wind Warriors.
Unlike the first two movies, there is no central mystery here, so the narrative is essentially of two halves – the first of which revolves around our heroic trio Di Renjie, Shatuo and Yuchi coming up against the Mystic Clan, and the second of which revolves around them trying to stop the Wind Warriors. Hark, who once again shares story credit with his franchise producer Chen Kuo-fu and screenplay credit with Chang Jia-lu, spins a relatively more protracted story that devotes as much time to Di Renjie’s investigations, as it does to Yuchi’s predicament caught between loyalty to country and obedience to authority as well as to Shatuo’s budding romance with Water Moon. It’s a lot happening at the same time, but Hark is as always a master storyteller, keeping all the moving pieces spinning like clockwork.
Together with his action director Lin Feng, Hark concocts a couple of grand, dazzling set-pieces that are just as, if not more, visually stunning than those in the earlier two films. Besides Yuchi’s battle with Spectral Blades, the other highlights include an ambush for Di Renjie at a local painter’s house where he first comes face to face with the Clan’s Smoke Volant, and a re-awakening of the Palace’s wall’s golden dragon that confirms the arrival of the Wind Warriors. But the piece de resistance is undoubtedly the elaborate finale, which involves a lot of life-sized red tentacles, a towering monster with thousands of eyeballs that can be shot at its enemy, ninja warriors that can transform themselves into flying dragons, and a giant white ape with Yuan Ce riding on its back.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more visually imaginative, inventive and idiosyncratic director than Hark – besides the more dramatic creations, there are also frequent displays of creative weaponry, ranging from metallic balls which can release either toxic liquid or poison gas to a circular chime-like device that can transform into metallic tentacles around a person’s head. And just because he feels like it, Hark also injects a peculiar dream sequence where Shatuo receives advice from a giant yellow fish swimming in front of him when visiting Master Yuan Ce’s secluded Sanzang Temple. There is plenty of trademark Hark zaniness here, but thankfully not to the extent where it becomes excessive, or worse self-indulgent.
Alas the three mid-credit sequences at the end border slightly on that, two of which establish Empress Wu’s reign twenty years later and the last of which fills in a pivotal gap about Master Yuan Ce’s nick-of-time appearance in the finale. They border on the unnecessary to say the least, as much as it does signal to fans that Mark Chao’s performance here as Di Renjie might be his last, considering the next sequel probably skips ahead two decades. Nevertheless, if it is, Chao deserves credit for being a lot more credible and compelling than he was in the last movie, even if he does have to share more screen time here with an over-the-top Feng and a charmingly laidback Lin. But the ‘Detective Dee’ series has always been Hark’s show, and his combination of period fantasy, action and intrigue proves to be just as captivating as ever. This is Chinese blockbuster making at its finest and most entertaining, so let yourself go and savour the weirdness, wackiness and wonder on full display here.
(Full of weird, wacky and wonder, Tsui Hark's visually inventive blend of period fantasy, action and intrigue proves as beguiling as ever)
Review by Gabriel Chong