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Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Before Regular Age Detective Dee, it only stands to reason, there was Young Detective Dee. Three years after Tsui Hark’s crowd-pleasing supernatural action mystery blockbuster DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME he recast with Mark Chao (THE WARRIOR’S GATE) in place of Andy Lau and gave us a case from early in his career: YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON.

As the title implies, it starts with some kinda kraken. I have too much respect for you to make a pun out of that. But you can imagine one. Something attacks the Chinese navy, they think it’s a sea monster, so obviously

1) they’re gonna sacrifice Yin Ruiji (Angelababy, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) to the monster and

2) Empress Wu (returning Carina Lau, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT) threatens to execute Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng, THE MONKEY KING 2 and 3) if he doesn’t figure out who attacked the fleet in ten days. Kind of a tough boss.

Dee is not assigned the case. He’s sent to the justice department to work for them, along the way saving Yuchi from some bandits and Ruiji from a human sized sea monster abductor, and then Yuchi doesn’t believe he’s supposed to work for the department and has him locked in a dungeon!

Here Dee uses his Sherlock powers. Spotting a medical assistant named Shatuo (Lin Gengxin, THE GREAT WALL), he sorta acts like he knows him, reciting all kinds of details about his life, later explaining how he guessed those things based on Shatuo’s surname, accent, approximate age, etc. But somehow he gets him to help fake a sickness so he can escape, and they become a team.

So what’s up with this humanoid Black Lagoon type sea monster? Do they really think he attacked their navy? I don’t know. It’s not my favorite makeup design, but he’s a scaly dude who does a little kung fu. I can get behind that. Ruiji comes to realize that he’s her former (and formerly human) lover Yuan Zhen (Korean actor/singer Kim Bum, DETECTIVE K: SECRET OF THE LIVING DEAD), an elite teamaker who won her over with his poetic love letters.

There are some bad guys who wear masks and carry bees around in little tubes and use them as weapons. I have to say, the animation of the bees when they’re shown in closeup is pretty cheesy, but it’s worth it for the cool idea and the shot where one bee gets sliced in half with a sword.

I had some problems with he look of this one. I can forgive the Stephen Sommers level c.g. of the naval battle, but the blatant standing-in-front-of-a-greenscreen quality is distracting. It seems so clean and brightly lit that I questioned if I could’ve accidentally turned on motion smoothing somehow. It’s weird, because it’s clearly a huge production in terms of number of extras, period costumes, sets and props, so it’s quite a feat that it still looks cheap in parts. At the same time, it seems well designed for 3D, with particular emphasis on digital flying weapons, so I started to theorize that it was overly bright to compete with dark 3D projector lenses, and should’ve had some compensation in the transfer. I don’t know. But I got used to it.

Since it’s Hark it’s very stylish and there’s some cool martial arts and some gross out stuff, like when people who have been poisoned have swarms of dung beetles crawl out of their mouths. But it’s more than just craziness. I like these characters. I like that Dee never tries to kill the “monster” even before he knows he’s human. I like the sad look he gives Yuchi when he’s promoted over him, even though he clearly has been figuring all the shit out while Yuchi keeps being wrong about everything and also being an asshole.

Like part 1, this feels like a very good take on Hollywood blockbuster spectacle as filtered through Chinese culture, Hong Kong filmmaking craft and the personality of director Tsui Hark. It has that “then this happened, then this happened, but then THIS” kinda episodic, strung-together-set-pieces structure, fueled by colorful heroism and villainy. That sort of thing works well for this character since the events all follow a clever set of clues and the solutions he comes up with. And he’s not only getting in scuffles with bad guys and monsters, but repeatedly finding himself at odds with his own government, which keeps thinking he’s wrong and trying to execute him for it.

I love when everybody is like “Good job Detective Dee, case closed, you fuckin DID it my friend, hats off. Now, I guess now that everything’s back to normal I guess we sh– wait a minute, why do you still look concerned, what do you know that—“ [KERSPLASH! GIANT FUCKIN SEA MONSTER ATTACK!]

And it’s a great ending because it pays off what he accomplished, gives him the job and trademark weapon he’ll have in the taking-place-later first film, and also implies future adventures. The emperor gives Dee the Dragon-Taming Mace, that cool weapon with a spinning part that causes vibrations that can shatter stone or metal. I’m glad I forgot all about that so I didn’t have to be sad he didn’t have it in the rest of the movie. Anyway, the emperor tells him it’s important to have someone of integrity like him to be a check on everyone, even the imperial court. And Empress Wu has this “Uh, not so sure I want that type of accountability” look.

It even has multiple mid-credits scenes of both the cliffhanger and funny-return-to-earlier-business variety. Which reminds me, one thing we get here that’s not in any of the MCU movies so far: he convinces all the kingdom’s rulers to drink pee. (Long story.)

Anyway, I’m convinced now – I’ll watch Detective Dee at any age, from BABY DETECTIVE DEE AND THE CURSED NURSERY MOBILE to SEA DRAGON: LOWERING OF OLD DETECTIVE DEE.

Thanks to Borg9 for praising the third DETECTIVE DEE movie in a comment thread a while back, reminding me to catch up.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 16th, 2019 at 12:14 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Monster, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon”

  1. I still need to see this one myself. I enjoy these silly spectacle-ized so far but if anyone is interested in the “REAL” Judge Dee and don’t want to crack open a book, track down the TV Movie JUDGE DEE AND THE MONASTERY MURDERS. Excellent adaptation (written by Nicholas Myers) with a great cast.

  2. “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Nno31LNWXM&list=WL&t=0s&index=80”

  3. Thanks to Borg9 for praising the third DETECTIVE DEE movie in a comment thread a while back, reminding me to catch up.

    Thanks to Borg9 for praising the third DETECTIVE DEE movie in a comment thread a while back, causing me to watch it twice in two days because it was fucking incredible

  4. You’re very welcome. I was glad to do it.

    I have to say I like this one too, but clearly not enough to jump on an old thread and praise it the way I did with the third one. The CG is fine for me and, as I mentioned, I think Tsui is working a Harryhausen vibe, particularly here with the sea monster. And I agree that the characters work too; it’s fun to see how the Dee-Yuchi relationship develops over this one and the third movie.

    I liked the swimming horse, and the HEAT-style sideswiping horse, but in the end what this one lacks is the spectacular WTFness that the first one had some of – look a talking deer! – and the third one makes its USP.

    Tsui Hark is 70 in February – and I am old enough to remember when he was an enfant terrible – but his movies are as playful as ever.

  5. I didn’t mention it at the time but I also watched that DETECTIVE DEE movie based on borg9’s recommendation in that thread and thought it was some absolutely ape-wild shit. It was the most believably cartoonish live action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and I mean that in a good way.

  6. Ha ha, sorry for retitling it “RISE OF THE SEA MONSTER” at the top. If you didn’t notice then please disregard.

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