Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

China (2013) Dir. Tsui Hark

In 655AD the Tang Dynasty, under the rule of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) and Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Chien), is at war with the Buyeo kingdom of Korea. During a journey by the Tang navy the entire fleet is wiped out by what is believed to be an angry Sea Dragon. Empress Wu tasks Yuchi Zhenjin (William Feng) head of the imperial law enforcement body Da Lisi,  to investigate the matter, giving him just ten days to do so or face execution.

Meanwhile former bailiff Di Renjie (Mark Chao) arrives to join the Da Lisi when he discovers a plot to kidnap the famed courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy), the star feature of a procession aimed at placating the Sea Dragon. Di manages to intercept the kidnapping, receiving a helping hand by a half human, half amphibian creature that tries to take Ruiji away.

When Yuchi finally arrives at the scene he arrests Di on suspicion of being in league of the kidnappers. Using his guile and wits, Di gets imperial doctor Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) on side to help him break free and investigate the pond creature uncovering a greater threat to the palace.

Quiet a lengthy summary for what amounts to the first thirty minutes or so of Tsui Hark’s prequel to his career resurrecting 2010 monster hit Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame. Embarking on his second 3D feature after 2011’s Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate, this time in true stereoscopic 3D, Hark delivers big on this front (although this review is based on the 2D DVD) but he and writer Chang Chia-lu (who also penned the first Dee film) have remembered that there needs to be a story to drive the wild visuals, which, by now you may have surmised, is quite an involved one.

Comparisons have been made with Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes reboot when viewing this film and it is not so difficult to see why since the cadre of the smart detective, the doctor sidekick and the usurped law enforcer is central to both franchises (except that Di Renjie actually existed).

This being Di’s first official investigation we are privy to the genesis of this particular trio which forms part of the narrative as Di has to win both other to his way of thinking, a difficult task when Yuchi, initially Di’s boss, imprisons him upon first meeting. Using simple deduction and prior research of his new employers Di is able to win Shatuo over fairly quickly while Yuchi is a harder prospect, but his results speak volumes and Yuchi has no choice to listen to what Di has to say.

The arrival of the pond creature during Ruiji’s kidnapping adds a layer of intrigue as it has no interest in harming her. Later that night it surfaces and pays Ruiji a visit, making references to her missing lover Yuan Zhen (Kim Beom), the owner of the Tranquillity Teahouse which makes a special blended tea exclusively for the Tang palace. Arriving at Ruiji’s chambers Di, Yuchi and Shatuo interrupt the creature’s visit just as a group of masked assailants attack the complex.

Ruiji realises the amphibian is Zhen and after thwarting the attack, they take Zhen to the crazy Doctor (Chen Kun) who discovers numerous parasites in his body that caused the transformation. Di recognised from the accents that the attackers they fended off were from the Dondo, enemies of the palace lead by Huo Yi (Hu Dong), resident on Bat island between China and Japan. From here the plot well and truly thickens.

A lot is going here but it is not uncharitable to say that it warrants the 133 minute run time, with fatigue begins to set in after 100 minutes. Because of the 3D gimmick we are treated to many fancy looking scenes eked out longer than their worth and Hark’s trademark Wire Fu fights which lack his usual bite, partially as Yuen Bun takes over Sammo Hung’s fight choreographer role for this film as because of the aforementioned technical adornments.

Nothing against Bun as the work is fine but just a tad slow moving and missing Hung’s creativity and the effects get in the way, with the fighters forced to pause to dodge every flying object or to perform an exaggerated flip or some form of gravity defying acrobatic display that is badly exposed in this 2D showing. In 3D they probably do look spectacular otherwise they have the rare distinction of feeling a tad superfluous, which for a Tsui Hark film is quite a preposterous suggestion!

Having the hardest time is Mark Chao who faces the challenge of following in the footsteps of (or is that paving the way for) the legendary Andy Lau who played Di in the Phantom Flame. As this is a younger and less experienced Di, Chao actually has the luxury of creating his own characterisation while keeping some of the subtleties found in Lau’s portrayal. This he does, making Di more light-hearted and less critical while remaining an enigmatic problem solver.

William Feng and Lin Gengxin provide suitably energetic support while Angelababy is little more than hapless but pleasant window dressing, effortlessly upstaged by the only other major female player Carina Lau as the austere Empress Wu. In case you were wondering, the titular Sea Dragon makes his appearance in the final act in impressive fashion but resemble a giant stingray more than a dragon. I’d still avoid it though!

As cynic about 3D I found this to be the most frustrating part about Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon since the 2D version exposes this reliance on such extravagant and eye candy as little more than an indulgence when it has plenty to offer without it. That said this is a fun slice of popcorn fodder and a worthy prequel/follow up to extend the Detective Dee franchise.

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