Tsui Hark’s “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Well Go February 11, 2014. This blockbuster prequel to “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (2010) is a spectacular fantasy wuxia mystery adventure with a fun young cast, excellent pacing, and a visual style that will blow your socks off.
Tsui and his wife, producer Nansun Shi, have been pushing the cinematic envelope in China for the last couple years with “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and China’s first IMAX 3D film, “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” (2011). Their trailblazing creative efforts, often flawed but always colossal and courageous, have helped thrust Chinese cinema into the digital age and the international spotlight. The team now returns to the beloved character Detective Dee with a fresh new approach to the beginning of his career.
Mark Chao Yu Ting is Dee Ren Jie, a promising young prodigy who comes to the capital to work for the royal intelligence agency. On his very first day at work, the kidnapping of a courtesan (Angelababy) lands Dee in trouble with the agency’s Chief Minister Yuchi Zhen Jin (William Feng Shao Feng). Dee and Yuchi must learn to work together to save the damsel in distress, discover the secret of a mysterious Sea Dragon, and fight off dangerous foreign rebels who threaten to kill the Empress (Carina Lau) and topple the Tang Dynasty.
The swift-moving, high flying plot is supercharged by constant frenetic action, an explosion of lavish art production, and a multi-channel visual narrative technique that relays plot information in a quick but fluid manner. This ground-breaking technique is pretty exciting and will hopefully change the way future films are constructed. The final third of the film unfortunately feels crammed, as if the film makers ran out of time. The innovative narrative evaporates and the dialogue degenerates into reductive wuxia cliches. However, the action climaxes in such an enormous whirlwind of glorious, insanely beautiful nonsense that everything else doesn’t much matter.
The whole fantasy is grounded by a photography style that recalls classic 1970s-80s Shaw Brothers cinema: flower framed mise-en-scenes, fancy Tang Dynasty tea houses and the very finest action photography. The action direction by Shaw veteran Yuen Bun and choreography by Lin Feng also recalls Shaw’s best wuxia cinema style. With solid martial actors and an expensive package of modern film making technology, the action is really a superb expression of good old-fashioned wuxia fighting. Palm blasts, butterfly twirls, backflips onto horses and flying has rarely looked so “real”, and a young, talented cast brings the energy needed to maintain this super-pace.
Mark Chao Yu Ting has the good looks, confidence and humor necessary for the Dee character but lacks the verve and sleek charm of his grand predecessor Andy Lau. Supporting actor William Feng Shao Feng excels at making dashing heroic poses and steals the action spotlight with his intense martial acting. The talented Angelababy is not given much to do with her role but her beauty is unforgettable. This ensemble of youth and beauty is presided over by the immortal goddess Carina Lau reprising her role as the remarkable Empress Wu.
To say that Tsui Hark pushed the envelope for “Young Detective Dee” is an understatement. He blew that envelope to bits. And it paid off; the film can be considered at the very least a visual masterpiece. The incredible, and incredibly large, art production team is thoughtful and careful in its re-invention of traditional Chinese art yet wildly creative with their lavish details. Everything – the make-up, costumes, props, walls, horses, wagons, plants, and sky – are designed with the maximum artistic effort. The art is so primary and central to the film that renderings for ideas not used in the film are honorably presented in the end credits. Spend some extra time enjoying them.
THE DVD: The Well Go USA DVD is a NTSC 16:9 Widescreen release with Stereo/5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital and works smoothly on dvd player and computer. The film content has not been edited for American release and runs 134 minutes. It is in Mandarin with an option for English subtitles. There are no bonus features but the film trailer is included and there are also trailers for upcoming Well Go releases.
There is one problem with watching this DVD, and that is “Young Detective Dee” was filmed in stereoscopic 3-D for theater presentation. At this stage of the technology game, the typical 3-D layers and “it’s coming right at you!” gimmicks just don’t seem to transfer well to a 2-D DVD format. The CGI in the opening scene is abysmally obvious but the film greatly improves after that, with some crappy cartoon and CGI intrusions during the action scenes. Just try to forget this is a 3-D film. Watch the pretty things. There are lots of them.