Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Seen It: Young Detective Dee: The Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013)

Releasing expensive (and potentially lucrative) prequels/sequels to successful movies is a money-making creative decision common not just too Hollywood, but in other film-making markets internationally. Regardless of the country of origin, prequels/sequels often fall into certain pitfalls such as thinking bigger (more villains, larger threats, higher stakes) is better without concern for narrative quality.

Tsui Hark's 2010 Chinese-Hong Kong action hit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Secret Flame, (a movie I reviewed previously) spawned a prequel, and unlike lesser movie fare, it proves a worthy follow-up. Returning to Young Detective Dee: The Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) is the creative force behind the original, director/producer Tsui Hark, while Andy Lau is replaced as Detective Dee by Taiwanese-Canadian actor Mark Chao. Not surprisingly, the contrast between each film's lead actor reflects some key general differences: whereas Lau's Dee was grizzled and driven my a sense of dark foreboding, Chao's younger protagonist is quirky, confident and surprisingly romantic.

With a narrative rooted in Chinese history, providing a quick summary is difficult, and once again Barnes and Noble does so more succinctly than I ever could: "The bustling capital city of Luoyang has come under attack from a powerful force from the depths of the ocean, threatening the entire Celestial Empire. Dispatched by Minister Yan to investigate for the Da Lisi, Detective Dee (Mark Chao) quickly learns that two dragons have appeared in the capital. Meanwhile, the newly crowned Empress Wu (Carina Lau, reprising her role from Mystery of the Secret Flame) has ordered Detective Luchi to investigate as well. Later, the sea monster attacks a ceremonial procession, spreading a wave of chaos throughout the city. When Dee uncovers evidence of a conspiracy implicating the most prominent members of the Imperial Family, he is imprisoned for treason. Now Dee's only hope for exposing the truth behind the bizarre events unfolding in Luoyang is to investigate the radiant courtesan Yin (Angelababy), but in order to do that he'll first need to escape prison with a little help from Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin). Once Dee is free, the race is on to save the city, and expose the treachery that threatens to topple the empire."

Actor Lin Gengxin (pictured right) plays the Robin to Mark Chao's Batman (left).
Beyond the expected wire-fu combat (once again choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung),  Tsui conceptualizes Dee's powers of deduction (bordering on psychic abilities in the earlier movie) in a variety of ways that give our protagonist the appearance of being superhuman. Early on the film, Dee's ability to read lips is shown visually in a manner reminiscent of Spider-man's spider sense in Sam Riami's original trilogy. Quite a bit of the way objects and scenes interact with the camera (and therefore audience) also seem to suggest a movie that had been intended for release in 3D: ships splinter into the audience's face, weapons come toward the screen, and the camera pans through open porticoes. The special effects have a more obvious CGI appearance than the previous film, but this is liekly due to its use rather than its execution. In (old) Detective Dee, most of the special effects were used to depict backgrounds and architecture; in Young Detective Dee, the narrative requires more interaction by the actors with various CGI elements such as ships on the ocean under attack or giant monsters.

The performances are strong and Chao plays Dee as smart and quirky, but with a naivete playing the younger version allows; Chao's Dee always has something brewing. His relationship with impromptu sidekick Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) is presented as a respectful, collaborative one rather than for laughs, a refreshing dynamic given some action filmmakers' crutch of using minor characters for comic relief. Many of the nuanced actions and interactions between Dee and Zhong seem to reflect or suggest things that result in the older Dee character from the first film. My sense is that some of the characterization groundwork laid in Rise of the Sea Dragon will come into clearer view after a re-watch of The Secret Flame.

Young Detective Dee; Rise of the Sea Dragon is an effective and entertaining historical action film with strong performances and suitably cartoony effects that do not detract form the overall viewing experience. It is best viewed with the original, to which it is a prequel. Both are available for instant online viewing via Netflix.

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