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Young Detective Dee:
Rise of the Sea Dragon

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Lin Gengxin and Mark Chao in Young Detective Dee.

Chinese: 狄仁傑之神都龍王龍鳳鬥  
Year: 2013
Director: Tsui Hark
Producer: Tsui Hark,Chen Kuo-Fu, Nansun Shi
Writer: Tsui Hark, Chang Chia-Lu
Action: Yuen Bun, Lin Feng
Cast: Mark Chao, William Feng, Angelababy, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Kenny Lin, Kim Bum, Aloys Chen, Hu Dong, Sheng Chien
The Skinny: More exciting, entertaining and largely inconsequential CGI-stuffed filmmaking from Tsui Hark. Mark Chao makes an OK stand-in for Andy Lau, while William Feng and Carina Lau steal the show. With good 3D.
by Kozo:

Tsui Hark returns in full-on commercial moviemaker mode for Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon and that’s sort of disappointing. After all, Tsui is a filmmaker who’s made films mixing crazy imagination, slapstick comedy, kinetic action, lurid romanticism and even social or political commentary. There were rich and sometimes relevant surprises crammed into Tsui’s early classics, and his late 90s and early aughts flameout (a.k.a. “The Van Damme Years”) was so dire that even superficially entertaining spectacles like Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn were seen as major triumphs. Well, Young Detective Dee is that same sort of triumph, meaning it’s fast, fun and also potentially forgettable. At this juncture, would it be asking too much for something a little more from The Master? Given the infamous content rules endlessly discussed by Sino-suspicious Western media, it probably would be.

So yay for Young Detective Dee! Even if it doesn’t star Andy Lau. A prequel to Lau’s forty-ish (Or maybe thirty-ish?) take on Tang Dynasty investigator Di Renjie (“Dee” for our purposes), Young Detective Dee stars Mark Chao as a thirty year-old Dee, who’s just arrived in Luoyang as a transfer to the Da Lisi a.k.a. the Justice Department, serving beneath the commanding Empress Wu Zetain (Carina Lau, reprising her award-winning role) and the Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Chien). As Dee arrives, Luoyang City is fearful of a monstrous “Sea Dragon” that’s rumored to be terrorizing the coast, and beautiful courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy) is scheduled to be sacrificed to the beast. Upon arrival, Dee spots a gang of kidnappers after Ruiji and attempts to save her at the Sea Dragon Temple, where a mysterious, scaly man-monster – who may be related to the Sea Dragon – makes his own attempt at snatching her.

Unfortunately, Dee’s involvement rankles the entrenched members of the Da Lisi, particularly Chief Minister Yuchi (William Feng), who leads via intense gazes and frequent ass-kicking. Dee shows up in Luoyang City and immediately becomes a Cop Who Breaks All The Rules™. He runs around flashing a borrowed badge, hoodwinks his fellow lawmen into thinking he’s carrying a deadly virus, and generally embarrasses everyone with his casually maverick ways. There’s initial conflict between Dee and Yuchi, but it’s eventually put aside to save China from the Sea Dragon and whoever is behind it. Unlike its predecessor, Young Detective Dee isn’t a mystery with a “science vs. supernatural” hook. The film’s fanciful reality allows the ridiculously enormous Sea Dragon to have a practical origin, and mysteries are explained quickly and efficiently. This is essentially an action-adventure broken up by near-farcical scenes of Dee owning everyone with his unflappable demeanor and near-psychic detective work.

While amusing, Dee’s cavalier law enforcement prowess does become a bit much. As played by Mark Chao, Dee is a laid-back, somewhat smug do-gooder who ignores authority and is forever one step ahead of everyone else. Dee’s lack of a discernible character arc prevents Mark Chao from showing much range, but the film belongs more to his co-stars anyway. William Feng and his piercing eyes make an entertainingly intense foil to Chao’s more-relaxed Dee, while Carina Lau owns all as the towering Empress Wu. The rest of the cast is suitable if not particularly noteworthy. Lin Gengxin is good comic relief as Shatuo, who functions as Dr. Watson to Dee’s Sherlock Holmes, while Aloys Chen is funny in a bizarre turn as mad doctor Wang Pu. Unfortunately, Angelababy is only eye candy – albeit exceptionally alluring eye candy – and her romance with Korean actor Kim Bum never becomes interesting.

Young Detective Dee’s main positives are its blistering pace, fun action and effective 3D. As he did in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Tsui applies 3D with surprising variety. There’s still plenty of the “in your face” stuff, like weapons flying towards the screen, but Tsui smartly uses 3D to add multiple layers to the frame, deepening composition and giving audience eyeballs more to observe. Tsui makes the action and visuals more immersive using 3D, and is far and away China’s best practitioner of the technology – though honestly, he doesn’t have much competition. Choreographed by Yuen Bun and Lin Feng, the action relies on wirework and digital trickery, but it’s fast and consistently entertains. The filmmakers channel the dazzling Hong Kong action of the nineties, complete with quick reversals, wonky physics and lengthy set pieces that seldom pause for breath. The visual effects are overbearing to a fault, but Tsui sneaks in small, fun details amidst the bombast.

Casual movie audiences should be fine with Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon because this is basically the China approximation of a summer blockbuster. The main complaint for more demanding viewers, and especially longtime Tsui Hark fans, is the one we arrived with: The film is entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and the fact that this is Tsui’s third consecutive “fun” film risks fatigue. Genre films are fine, but Tsui is a director who’s capable of more than period martial arts fantasies. It would be wonderful if Tsui could take the time to create something different and more surprising. Still, complaining about Tsui Hark’s current filmmaking quality is looking a gift horse in the mouth. On a technical and entertainment level, if not an emotional or artistic one, Tsui is again very much on his game with Young Detective Dee. Until further notice, the sliding scale applies. (Kozo, 9/2013)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
CN Entertainment, Ltd.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various extras

*Also Available on 2D + 3D Blu-ray Disc Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen