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February 05, 2014

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

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Di Renjie: Shen du long wang
Tsui Hark - 2013
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

While I would not want to begrudge Tsui Hark's current success with big budget, special effects heavy, movies that have played to great popularity in mainland China, I miss the guy who made smaller movies for his Hong Kong audience. The film that really hooked me was The Chinese Feast, a screwball comedy about a cooking competition, and in spite of terrible subtitles, for me, one of the funniest movies ever made. What I also miss is that by making films centered on male heroes, the female characters get less screen time, yet it is the two main female characters, here, as well as in films past, that are the more interesting elements from Tsui's extensive filmography.

Carina Lau returns as Empress Wu in this film that presents, as the title indicates, Detective Dee, the name westernized from DI, at the beginning of his career. Lau simply needs to flash hauteur with her ornate costumes. At half Lau's age, Angelababy might be hoping for as significant an acting career. As the courtesan who is on the verge of being a human sacrifice for the sea dragon in question, her costumes also are part of the performance.

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While comparisons are made between the 7th Century Chinese detective and Sherlock Holmes, Dee seems to recede in the background, with his partners in crime solving often taking the spotlight. There is a subplot involving the courtesan and her lover, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, which is part of the greater plot involving the overthrow of the Wu kingdom.

Dee alternates between competition and cooperation with the kingdom's top cop, proving himself worthy of joining the elite police unit. Part of the plot also involves an enemy that speaks Dondo, a language originating from Indonesia. Some of the historical aspect may well be fuzzy for western viewers. More universal is that the plot involves the members of the royal court drinking a special tea, one that contains parasites, or that the only known cure involves drinking the urine of "male virgins". Tsui often has, for lack of a better choice of words, gags, in dubious taste.

Neither this, nor the first Detective Dee film engaged me as other films by Tsui have done so in the past. Again, I think this may have something to do with the role of women in Tsui's films, as his previous effort, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was held together by the performances of Zhou Xu, Li Yuchun and Gwei Lun-mei, providing the emotional core, with Jet Li's presence mostly to insure ticket sales. Things pick up during the second half of the film when mysteries are solved and the sea dragon is finally confronted. An abundance of wire work and special effects is not enough to cover for a less than compelling story.

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Posted by peter at February 5, 2014 06:35 AM