Young Detective Dee -– Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Ren Jie Zhi Shen Du Long Wang): Film Review

Young Detective Dee Rise of the Sea Dragon - H 2013
Courtesy EMP
The wild abundance of 3D action choreography stirs the senses but couldn’t boost a narrative that flutters from chase to chase, and skirmish to skirmish.

Three years after the success of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tsui Hark delivers a prequel tracing the rise of the young Tang Dynasty action hero.

Much has been said about Tsui Hark’s first deployment of stereoscopic cameras in his latest outing, and it has proved to be more than just hype: Upping the grandiose vistas of his 2010 Venice film festival competition entry (and commercial hit), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Young Detective Dee -- Rise of the Sea Dragon is a visual spectacle from beginning to end, with the Hong Kong-bred, U.S.-educated and now largely Beijing-based filmmaker cramming chases, fights and monsters into most of its 133-minute duration. But this emphasis on relentless action sequences is at the expense of proper exposition of a labyrinthine story, substantial characterizations and the implicit social commentary that Tsui has taken pride of concealing within his genre-driven work. While the film should generate good returns at home -- it opens in the director’s home city on Sept. 27 before bowing in mainland China, in 3D and Imax 3D versions, the next day -- hopes of a repeat of the limited-release and ancillary-market success beyond Chinese-speaking markets are not exactly bullish.

One of the major problems for Young Detective Dee is how Tsui, his fellow story-conjurer (and producer) Chen Kuofu and co-screenwriter Zhang Jialu persisted in packing multiple threads into the narrative when the film’s prime objective is seemingly set as providing as much scintillating stereoscopy as possible. The interesting premise of substantiating the origins of the uncontrollable criminal-investigator protagonist’s insubordinate instincts is actually passed on in favor of a narrative about a mischievous man’s endless pursuit of an nearly unending stream of clues, culprits and conspiracies; somehow, the writers are playing the surrealist game of exquisite corpse, devising plot points as they go along and explaining crises away by the convenient imposition of yet another new parasite, poison or powerful weaponry.

The film’s title, for example, refers to a gargantuan (and unseen) creature that has managed to decimate a massive Tang naval armada on its way to respond to an incursion by a smaller neighboring state. But as that effects-laden opening sequence ended and the Empress Wu (Carina Lau, the only cast member from the first film making an appearance here) demanding an investigation into the matter, the sea monster somehow faded away from the narrative. What the young Dee (played here by Taiwanese star Mark Zhao), his Uighur sidekick, Shaluo Zhong (Lin Gengsheng), and his colleague-cum-rival, Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng), have to confront first are gangsters wreaking havoc in the city trying to kidnap the beautiful courtesan Yin (Angelababy), who is being served up as human sacrifice; the woman’s presence then leads to the appearance of a reptilian beast, who was once her lover and the owner of a prestigious tea shop, providing an expensive beverage for royalty and nobility; and it would take further zigzags (involving a search for a mole in the court, the battle against foreign insurgents trying to bring down the Tang Dynasty from within and many a bickering match between Dee and Yuchi) before the titular marine beast eventually returns to the fore, nearly as an afterthought.

Even the film’s high production values -- courtesy of the design work by the Hong Kong triumvirate of Kenneth Mak, Bruce Yu and Lee Pik-kwan -- could only struggle to distract the viewer away from these flaws in the narrative. Somehow running against the way Dee is shaped in Mystery of the Phantom Flame -- he is depicted as a headstrong, anti-authority figure who only reluctantly agrees to support the Empress towards the end of the film -- the younger version of the detective is actually a meeker, more subservient version of his older self. With Zhao not exactly boasting sufficient charisma as the more experienced Andy Lau, who played Dee three years ago, or even his onscreen rival Feng here, the upstart detective is imposed with some cartoonish capabilities (he could see the weapons concealed in clothes!) and also provided with incredible life-saving tools (a horse that moves faster in water than on land!)

Not that Young Detective Dee is totally zany: The main theme underlining Tsui’s last franchise -- the Jet Li-starring film series revolving around the early 20th century martial arts hero Wong Fei-hung -- is still present here, as the filmmaker again attempts to explore an incarnation of the affluent Chinese state as it starts its slide towards material excess (as manifested in the way the elite are hooked on a particular blend of tea) and moral corruption (with the way the courtesan Yin is persecuted first by powerful patrons whom she refused to sleep with, and then the masses who cheer as she is transported to exile and eventual death). It’s just that these observations were episodic and never really entertained coherently throughout, and they couldn’t really compete with the bombastic battles that fill the screen ad nauseam, mutters of discontent drowned out by the monstrous din of heroism.

Production Companies: Film Workshop, Huayi Brothers Media Group
Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Mark Zhao, Feng Shaofeng, Carina Lau, Angelababy, Lin Gengsheng
Producers: Chen Kuofu, Nansun Shi
Executive Producer: Wang Zhongjun
Screenwriters: Zhang Jialu and Tsui Hark, based on a story by Chen Kuofu and Tsui Hark
Director of Photography: Jimmy Choi
Production Designer: Kenneth Mak
Image Designer: Bruce Yu
Costume Designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Wu Wai-lap
International Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Group
In Mandarin/Putonghua
No ratings, 133 minutes