YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON
(Die Renjie: Shen du Long Wang)
Amid this revival of the form, Tsui Hark had a considerable success with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). This was based on the historical figure of De Renjie who lived in the 7th Century and was reputedly a judge esteemed for the scrupulous fairness and logic of his judgements who eventually rose to become chancellor to the Dowager Empress Wu Zeitan. Stories of De Renjie appeared in an 18th Century Chinese book and were translated by Dutch linguist Robert van Gulik who then went on to write a whole series of fictional Judge Dee books. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon is a prequel to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and deals with Dees arrival in the imperial capital and becoming a detective. The title role, played by Andy Lau in the first film, has been cast with Mark Chao, a relative newcomer of Taiwanese-Canadian origin, and the only returnee from the original cast is Carina Lau as the Empress Wu.
It could be argued that Detective Dee was one of the progenitors of Sherlock Holmes. One of the weaker aspects of the first film was that Tsui Harks visuals triumphed over the detective side of the story in other words, it was more of an action film than a mystery but that has been redressed here and we have several scenes where Mark Chao acts like a Holmesian intellect extraordinaire, piecing together amazing deductions based on obscure clues and knowledge of arcane trivia. Tsui Hark has certainly conceived the character more along the lines of a Holmes this time around if this were not obvious, the film even creates the character of a doctor as Dees faithful companion. More so, Tsui seems to have taken as his lead Guy Ritchies recent big screen reworking of the character in Sherlock Holmes (2009). Detective Dees intuitive skills are demonstrated in a visual rather than descriptive way with 3D visual displays of maps popping out in relief, the camera zooming in and flashing back to observe clues and so on, in much the same way as Ritchie did with Robert Downey Jrs Holmes.
You could say that The Mystery of the Phantom Flame was a fantastical film entirely in terms of its visual style, even if it paid lip service to telling a rationalised story. By contrast, Young Detective Dee is a much more out-and-out fantastical film. There is what initially appears to be the bipedial version of the sea monster with Ian Kim as a scaled creature hidden beneath a hooded cloak, which is then turned on its head to reveal the creature is none other than the lover of the heroine Angelababy (later explained away as his being infected with a poisonous parasite that has caused his skin to turn lizard-like) whereupon the film turns into a peculiar Beauty and the Beast-like relationship. There is also a massive sea monster; a race of masked assassins who can seemingly breathe underwater and are constantly popping up and vanishing beneath the waves; even the imperial doctor who appears to have had an apes arm transplanted in lieu of his own missing one. With the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle flirted with the fantastic on occasion see stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924) although it was always revealed as having a rational explanation at the end. By contrast, Tsui Hark seems to be constantly suborning what should otherwise be a mundane detective story into one of his typical extravagant flying swordsmen films. The Detective Dee films pay lip service and offer rational explanations, but it would hard to imagine by contrast a Conan Doyle story with Holmes going into action against sea monsters and lizard people.
Tsui Hark takes some time before he gets to his customary wild and off the planet Wu Xia sequences. There is a fantastical fight as Yuan Zhen and the Dondoers attempt to abduct Angelbaby from Swallow House with Mark Chao fighting the masked figures all around the pavilion, ducking thrown weapons and novelty blades, leaping up and around the rafters and into the water, even fighting off swarms of wasps and while trapped inside a giant cast iron pot. There are other amazing fight scenes like with Feng Shaofeng taking massive leaps across the city to tackle the traitor in a back alley with the two of them fighting around a series of huge barrels hanging in mid-air. There is a slighter weaker scene fighting on the side of a mountain, which pales somewhat in comparison with the superior sequence in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) a few months earlier. The film arrives at a stupendous climax with the massive monster attacking the ships at sea and tearing them apart, Mark Chao racing along on a horse that rides underwater, Feng Shaofeng taking massive leaps between ships sails and onto the sea monster, even the surreal image of the horse running at full tilt along debris floating in the water as Chao is pelted in a rain of catapulted poison fish. Outside of Tsuis visuals, the film has been made with a beautifully lush display of traditional Chinese pageantry and costumery that fills the screen.
Tsui Harks other genre films as director are:- The Butterfly Murders (1979), Were Going to Eat You (1980), Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street/Mad Mission III: Our Man from Bond Street (1984), Green Snake (1993), Butterfly Lovers (1994), Zu Warriors/The Legend of Zu (2001), Black Mask 2: City of Masks (2002), Missing (2008) and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). Tsui Hark has also produced A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), The Laser Man (1988), Roboforce/I Love Maria (1988), A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), Swordsman (1990), A Terracotta Warrior (1990), A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), The King of Chess (1991), New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), Swordsman II (1992), Iron Monkey (1993), The Magic Crane (1993), Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), Wicked City (1993), Burning Hell in Paradise (1994), Black Mask (1996), A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation (1997), Master Q (2001) and Vampire Hunters/The Era of Vampires (2002).