Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) Review

"Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Chen Kuo Fu, Tsui Hark
Cast: Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Kenny Lin Geng Xin, Kim Bum, Angelababy, Deng Chao, Carina Lau Kar Ling, Hu Dong, Chen Kun, Sheng Jian, Ma Jing Jing
Running Time: 133 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Tsui Hark has long been one of Hong Kong’s most prolific creative forces. He’s directed countless movies which are considered Hong Kong classics, from the excess of Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain to the re-invention of Wong Fei Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series, to unintentionally creating a Spanish speaking Brazil in Time & Tide. However out of all the genres he’s worked in, the one that he keeps coming back to is the wuxia. His breakout movie in 1979, The Butterfly Murders, was a wuxia styled murder mystery, it could be argued that the whole wuxia new wave of the early 90s was kicked off by his movie Swordsman in 1990, before he returned to effectively de-construct all that had come before with 1995’s The Blade, and then again returned to a more grounded and earthy wuxia world with Seven Swords, made a whole decade later in 2005.

It seems the post-2010 Tsui Hark has returned to the genre he clearly has a lot of love for. After a number of misfires, the release of Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame saw him return to solid commercial film making, and the result was a resounding success. Hark seemed to forego his usual genre hopping habits, and returned in 2011 with another wuxia, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, a re-make of the 1992 New Dragon Gate Inn of which he was the producer, which itself was a remake of the King Hu original. The re-make of a re-make was a solid effort, with Hark making effective use of 3D, and further continued the refreshing tone that was set by his previous effort of being an unpretentious action romp, free of the usual naval gazing that most wuxia’s had embraced in the post Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon world.

Unusually, Hark decided to stick with wuxia for a third time in a row with the release of 2013’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, a prequel to the Andy Lau starring 2010 production. It’s a movie to be approached with caution by the more traditional minded Hong Kong movie fan. Hark has never been shy of using new technology, and both Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Tiger Gate made liberal use of CGI, sometimes it was remarkably effective, sometimes Hark’s ambition went beyond his budget and things got a little video gamey. However while both of those efforts were anchored by mega stars Andy Lau and Jet Li respectively, here Young Detective Dee is portrayed by the relatively unknown Taiwan star Mark Chao.

So, with the promise of an action adventure filled with CGI and 3D, it’s a safe bet that the majority of HK fans who like their movies free of any visual trickery or gimmicks won’t even give this one a second glance. I confess to being a member of that majority, however I’m glad that I did decide to check out Hark’s latest vision. While his previous two efforts were solid but not without their hiccups, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon proves that Hark has found his rhythm with this new wuxia world he’s trying to create. Or perhaps ‘new’ is not quite the correct word to use, rather those wild and adrenalin fuelled wuxia movies of more than twenty years ago have effectively been brought into the 21st century. The energy that was created with the over the top wire work is still there, however it’s now ably backed up with, and sometimes replaced by, CGI, and somehow the combination works.

The cast definitely help proceedings, while filling the shoes of the Detective Dee that Andy Lau created should be an intimidating task, Mark Chao makes the character his own, as a younger but seemingly no less confident Dee, who has just taken up his role in the Justice Department. While at this point in most wuxia tales a plot will be introduced involving some kind of mysterious character attempting to take over the martial arts world, here we have a much more refreshing and unconventional problem. Authorities believe that there’s a sea monster on the loose, and it’s up to Dee and his Justice Department cohorts to get to the bottom of it. Of course, somewhere along the way it’s revealed that there is a mysterious character, and this being a 2013 movie, it should be no spoiler to mention that instead of trying to take over the martial arts world, their goal is to take over China.

Hark thankfully is a skilled enough film maker to make these details throw-away, at no point does the movie steer into China flag waving, and it all fits in with the plot in a way that feels natural and doesn’t ruin the flow. Yuen Woo-ping should probably have taken a few notes from Hark before making True Legend. Of course, such a detail could also be classed as being throw-away based on the fact that the movie is called Rise of the Sea Dragon. This is a wuxia movie, so of course a sea monster doesn’t typically fit into the type of environments that lend themselves to this kind of storytelling. But this is also a Tsui Hark movie, and as a result, we are indeed given a fully realized, suitably epic sea monster, and it provides a satisfyingly thunderous conclusion. For anyone with home theatre systems, Young Detective Dee gives the sound system a mighty fine work out.

It would be unfair to give all the credit to Hark though, because as with his previous two efforts, he brings back Yuen Bun as action director. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon not only sees Hark fully realizing the potential of how to use the latest technologies, but Yuen Bun also seems to find the balance here of how to create an effective action sequence without going overboard. While the fight in the sandstorm tornado that was supposed to be a highlight of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate ended up coming across as cartoonish and fake, here Bun reigns things in and keeps the action fast, fluid, and entertaining, while never taking things too far that it looks like a bunch of pixels flailing at each other. There is a real feel in Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon that both Hark and Bun are in full control of what they’re creating onscreen, and as an audience, this translates into two hours of solid entertainment.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10

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