Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Angelababy, Lin Gengxin, Ian Kim, Chen Kun, Hu Dong, Carina Lau
RunTime: 2 hrs 14 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw and Scorpio East Pictures
Opening Day: 27 September 2013
Synopsis: The young Dee Renjie arrives in the Imperial Capital to join the Supreme Court as a district magistrate, a high level government posting with the functions of detective, prosecutor, judge and executioner intent to become an officer of the law.
Empress Wu, who is at the start of her reign, has sent the fiery-haired Detective Yuchi to investigate a sea monster that stalks the city at night. By chance, both Dee and Yuchi fight off the creature when it attacks a ceremonial procession carrying the beautiful courtesan Yin to be sacrificed at a temple to appease the Gods. Suspicious of the stranger, Yuchi has Dee imprisoned.
Dee escapes with the help of visiting doctor Shatuo and together they discover that the upper reaches of society, including the Emperor himself, are addicted to a poisonous tea produced by Yuan's famous teahouse. Yuan, who was romantically attached to Yin, has been missing for months. Dee shadows the courtesan, who is under Yuchun's protection, until the sea monster reappears. Just as the two men are about to kill it, Yin reveals that the monster is her lover, Yuan. Yuan has been poisoned by a foreign Prince whose kingdom was overthrown by the Emperor. As the Prince's army readies itself on a nearby island to attack the capital, a real sea dragon rises from the deep.
Legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark returns to the Tang Dynasty Sherlock Holmes character which, three years ago, gave his then-flailing film career a much needed shot in the arm. Indeed, the 2010 lavishly entertaining period mystery ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’ was probably his best film in more than a decade, and could not have come at a more critical time when many in the film industry had pretty much written him off as a has-been.
A prequel that sees Taiwanese actor Mark Chao stepping into the titular role once played so memorably by Andy Lau, ‘Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon’ also sees Tsui Hark building on his much-lauded maiden stereoscopic movie ‘Flying Swords of Dragon Gate’ by delivering a 3D spectacle that puts many of its Hollywood counterparts to shame. Yes, this is one of the rare films which boast of the 3D format that we will actually recommend paying to extra dollars just to see it with a pair of glasses on - and that is, we may add, from watching the 2D version no less.
Following a rousing prologue that sees the mighty navy of the Tang Dynasty decimated at sea by a massive underwater creature, Chao’s opening narration establishes the time and place of the events that follow. It is 665 AD, the joint reign of Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Chien) and the Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) during a time when the country is at war with the Fuyu kingdom. Dee is set to take a job as a magistrate at the Dalisi based in the capital of Luoyang, an organisation whose mission is to keep the peace and investigate any disturbances.
No thanks to the superstition of the common folk, the beautiful courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy) is held as sacrifice to the sea monster at a temple. After he lip-reads a plot by some bad men to hold her ransom, Dee rushes to her rescue, only to be confronted by a human-like reptilian beast that slips away in the melee. Unfortunately for Dee, he isn’t that lucky, his initiative to take action on his own earning the wrath of the head of the Dalisi, Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng), who throws him into prison.
Dee’s rivalry with Yuchi is one of the recurring themes of the story, which pits the two as intellectual equals racing to crack the case before Zetian has the latter’s head for incompetence. It is in prison that Dee meets the Uighur prison doctor Shaluo Zhong (Lin Gengxin), who will become an effectual sidekick Dee relies on for advice - especially as it becomes clear that the explanations he seeks to the phenomena going on around them are medical in nature.
Reunited with his ‘Dee’ scribe Zhang Jialu, Tsui Hark spins an intriguing mystery revolving around a nefarious conspiracy to overthrow the entire kingdom and its noblemen by an obscure fishing tribe known simply as the Dongdoers. Tsui’s penchant for the fantastical remains intact here; and while the earlier ‘Dee’ had a talking deer, this one figures to throw in a white horse that can swim above and under water on its way to uncovering the origins of the ‘Kraken’-like gargantuan monster as well as the half-human, half-reptile animal that seems obsessed with Ruiji. Granted that it does require some suspension of disbelief on the part of its viewer, but Tsui ultimately leaves no stone unturned in rationalising every single detail of his twisty plot.
More so than in the first ‘Dee’ movie, this one finds Tsui on a much more assured directorial footing juggling a detective story with a good bit of palace intrigue and even tongue-in-cheek humour thrown in for good measure. One of the most amusing bits of the movie is the antidote Shaluo and his master (Chen Kun) comes up with to purge the palace officials of the parasitic infestation taking root in them, a truly delightful little detail that Tsui even uses to end the movie on a high note in a special scene in the middle of the closing credits. Tsui’s storytelling is brisk and engaging from start to finish, connecting the dots ever so fluidly from clue to clue as he pieces together a mesmerising tapestry of schemes and secrets.
Enabling his work at top form is an excellent technical team, most notably Kenneth Mak’s exquisite production design, Lee Pik-kwan’s opulent costumes and Bruce Yu’s overall immaculate image design. It is as sumptuous a period epic as you have ever seen, and a most exciting one at that thanks to veteran action director Yuen Bun’s cornucopia of gravity-defying wire-ful sequences. Bun and Lam Feng’s choreography here most resembles that of Tsui’s earlier ‘wuxia’ pictures, their integration with plenty of impressive CGI work clearly a product and testament of Tsui’s vivid - and rather awe-inspiring - imagination that had also undoubtedly conceived the action in 3D right from the get-go.
Amid the visual spectacle, it is to the actors’ credit that their characters remain more than one-dimensional. Feng does solid work as the stern Yuchi whose initial strong distrust of Dee gives way to admiration and even respect. Carina Lau doesn’t have much screen time as the Empress, but where she appears, is never less than captivating in her regalness. But perhaps the greatest surprise here is Chao, who tempers Andy Lau’s showiness with quiet charisma and wry intelligence that gives the titular character a more down-to-earth but no less humbling stature.
And once again therefore, Tsui Hark is back at the very top of his game with yet another outing of this Tang Dynasty sleuth. Coupling a finely spun mystery with splendid visuals and spellbinding martial arts action, Tsui cements his ‘Dee’ franchise as Asia’s answer to Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Indeed, the title of this movie is a befitting metaphor of Tsui’s own work here, he the metaphorical sea dragon that has risen from the depths of his own doldrums to set the gold standard in blockbuster entertainment for Chinese cinema.
(The rare sequel - or more accurately, prequel - that is even more riveting and enthralling than its predecessor, Tsui Hark's return to Asia's Sherlock Holmes sets a gold standard in blockbuster entertainment for Chinese cinema)