Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (狄仁杰之神都龙王) (2013)

Not an ideal sequel (or even prequel). Just watch Young Detective Dee for the magic of Tsui Hark

Aside from his brief foray into gritty, psychological realism in Seven Swords in 2005, Tsui Hark has been the standard bearer for high fantasy wuxia films throughout his career. While Seven Swords was a critical success and commercial failure that regardless, must have rejuvenated the old master for his career comeback film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

This year’s prequel follows the formula set by the 2011 film: Detective Dee as a kungfu fighting Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries and crimes from the Scooby Doo catalogue amidst political intrigue and hysteria. Instead of spontaneous human combustion, Detective Dee starts his storied career investigating a mystery or conspiracy involving sea monsters and lizardmen, while Carina Lau continues to chew up scenery ominously as the Empress Wu Zetian, the female Machiavelli who would one day declare herself sole ruler of China.

Of course, the mystery is just a sort of excuse to serve up scene after scene, setpiece after setpiece filled with inventive imagery and psychedelic fights. Tsui Hark’s approach to wuxia doesn’t rest in wirefu and flying pugilists; it’s a sort of High Gothic Wuxia where you have lizardmen kidnapping maidens, giant kaiju smashing up entire navies, horses galloping underwater, improbable weapons, and brawls in cloth factories, monasteries, and bordellos. You watch Tsui Hark not for the logic, but for the sheer ecstasy and terror he works in your brain.

You might as well. Tsui Hark’s direction and setpieces are a huge saving grace of Young Detective Dee, which is bogged down not so much by directorial excess but by the bland competence in terms of its new cast and the laziness of the script. If you’ve watched Phantom Flame and if you remember the structure of Phantom Flame, its play by play and plot points, you’ll find yourself identifying the red herring of the mystery and the real conspiracy in Young Detective Dee, predicting the identity of the villains, and placing bets on how the mystery is solved.

As a follow-up to the first film, Young Detective Dee is a disappointment that is saved only by the talents of Tsui Hark.

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