When a naval contingent sent by Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is decimated by, according to survivors, a ‘sea dragon,’ the city of Luoyng erupts into panic. Arriving in Luoyang, new recruit to the Justice Department Dee Renjie (Mark Chao) quickly finds himself at odds with the current leaders including officer Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng), who is himself struggling to make headway in the Sea Dragon Case. Forced to work outside the Justice Department, Dee befriends a young doctor Shatuo (Lin Gengxin) and a beautiful courtesan Yin (Angelababy) who assist with his investigation. As he gets closer to the truth, will Dee be able to earn the trust of the hardheaded Yuchi, survive the willfulness of the Empress, and solve the mystery of the elusive ‘Sea Dragon’?
Tsui Hark returns to the directors chair with this big budget prequel to his hugely successful Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame. With his keen eye for the visual, Hark paints a stunning picture of Tang Dynasty China. A stylish color palette, extravagant costuming, and kinetic action highlight a film where nothing is what it seems and machinations crank below the surface. Blisteringly paced, the film keeps the story charging forward, regardless of some of the more odd choices the film makes in terms of realism. While the previous film had its share of the fantastical, this installment turns it up a notch with its wuxia-style action choreography, courtesy of Yuen Bun, and the screen becomes filled with debris from exploding wood and pottery. It is acrobatic and showcases some of the best wirework I think I’ve seen in years, but it will turn off those looking for more grounded martial arts on display.
With a very successful 3D release in China, it is evident that muvh effort was made to emphasize the ‘in-your-face’ element of the format, and while it does carry some of the better CGI out of Chinese films these days, there is a gap between the quality of computer generated work of the background versus the much less impressive, and obvious, 3D intentioned instances. Music is composed by the excellent Kenji Kawai; it’s appropriate and very memorable music that was a step uo from Peter Lam’s solid but unmemorable score in the previous film.
Mark Chao turns in a good performance as the highly intelligent and analytical Dee. His performance really shines in his eyes when Dee is thinking though a mystery or question. What he lacks in the practiced ease of Andy Lau’s portrayal, he makes up for in enthusiasm. Angelababy does her thing again, that is, be as beautiful as possible and make characters fall over themselves for you. She is certainly stunning but I am getting tired of her inclusion in films for that reason alone, especially when her character proves to have no limit in her ability to make bad choices. Feng Shaofeng is good as the stalwart Yuchi and Carina Lau’s is a welcome reprisal from the first film that foreshadows her character’s demeanor later on. Lin Genxin does alright with the role he’s got, but he really seems overwhelmed by all the other insanely talented characters surrounding his Shatuo.
In the end, Young Detective Dee is a perfectly entertaining film that doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. It is a visually arresting film and features some excellent wire-centric choreography, not to mention a couple of intense monster attack sequences. Feeling more of a throwback to the fantasy films of the early 90s in HK films but with a fresher coat of paint, genre specialists will find a little more to like, but regardless, Dee has arrived in Luoyang and I can’t wait to see him on screen again.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, The Butterfly Murders, and/or The Four
Special Thanks to Well Go USA for providing a viewing copy!