Film review: Young Detective Dee

Edmund Lee

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 10:20pm

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon
Starring: Mark Chao Yu-ting, Angelababy Yeung Wing, William Feng Shaofeng, Carina Lau Ka-ling
Director: Tsui Hark
Category IIA (Putonghua)


Andy Lau Tak-wah may be absent, but the exotic poisonous bugs remain in this 3-D prequel to Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). It's a tall order to replicate the critical acclaim of that supernatural detective thriller, which starred Lau, Li Bingbing and Tony Leung Ka-fai, and marked a significant return to form for the veteran auteur who appeared to be losing his way for much of the 2000s.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon falls short, but is nonetheless a valiant attempt to recreate that magic.

Set in AD665, 24 years before the events that took place in the earlier work, it opens with a suspenseful scene at sea; an entire fleet of warships is seemingly destroyed by a giant monster from the deep.

As if any encouragement is still necessary, Justice Department chief Yuchi Zhenji (William Feng Shaofeng) is given 10 days by Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau Ka-ling) to either solve the mystery of the purported Sea Dragon or lose his head.

In comes Di Renjie (Mark Chao Yu-ting), the Detective Dee of the English title. He's a law-abiding investigator who's been sent to the eastern capital city of Luoyang to work as a low-ranking officer at the Justice Department. His skills include lip-reading and being able to identify acupuncture points during combat, and he is able to memorise every case record in the department's archives. Dee immediately makes his mark by saving Yin Ruiji (Angelababy Yeung Wing), the capital's top courtesan, from kidnappers, and antagonises Yuchi in the process.

The next two hours of non-stop action are another example of Tsui's typically convoluted brand of storytelling - one which ropes in at least three loosely linked missions for our protagonists.

These are all frenetic and diverting, involving a reptile-like creature that looks as if it's wandered off a David Cronenberg set, a small team of assassins from a neighbouring kingdom, and the titular beast itself.

Produced and directed by Tsui from an original story that he and Chen Kuo-fu came up with, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon is a special effects-laden adventure which seems determined to live up to its young adult title.

Gone are the original's high-profile cast, the unwavering devotion to rational deduction (even in front of a talking stag), and the political wisdom that informed its protagonists' shifting loyalties. Instead there is a younger, less charismatic cast and a story that trades the usual elements of a detective mystery for spectacle.

But although the intrigue of the 2010 film is missing, it's hard to criticise a maverick director who doesn't bat an eyelid when he throws his headlining sleuth into a crazy monster film. And if you think hard enough about the long and winding plot, you'll realise that all this guilty pleasure of a film really lacks is, ironically, a perfect crime.

[email protected]


Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon opens on September 26