I almost didn’t catch this film in the theater, because I didn’t see any reviews or ads for it. The only reason I found out it was playing is because somebody on a movie forum mentioned that it was playing in Atlanta, so I googled to see when it would be coming here, only to find that it was already playing at Pacific Place Cinemas. Pacific Place Cinemas has shown a number of popular (as opposed to art house) Chinese movies in the past year, but usually there has been some kind of word in the paper. Young Detective Dee didn’t even have a poster up on the wall, although I did find a flyer for it lying on a table by the concession stand. In fact, the theater it was in had a poster for Prisoners by the door, making me wonder if Young Detective Dee was only being shown between showings of the other movie. Very strange. That said, it seems to have opened here at the same time that it premiered in China, where it topped the box office last week.
Anyway, this a prequel to Tsui Hark’s 2010 film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. A giant sea monster (or dragon) destroys the imperial fleet, and while the cause of the disaster is being investigated, a religious rite involving a beautiful courtesan is also set up to placate divine forces. The young (well, 30-year-old) Detective Dee, only recently released from prison (as in the earlier movie), enters the imperial city and is swiftly swept up in the mystery of an amphibian humanoid with designs on the courtesan and a troupe of gargoyle-masked foreigners with designs on the amphibian humanoid. What does this all have to do with the sea monster? Stay tuned!
I may have liked this one slightly more than the previous Detective Dee movie just because it had an extra layer of goofy weirdness to it. The production design and shot compositions are equally good, and the final revelations are equally banal, yet the sense of humor and eccentricity is more appealing. Also, the action set pieces by Yuen Bun seemed better choreographed. The film was shot in stereoscopic 3D, but what I saw was 2D, which is too bad, because some of the shots looked well-designed for 3D. It certainly looks a lot better than Tsui Hark’s previous 3D movie, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). Admittedly, I only saw that one on Netflix streaming, but, speaking of the vicissitudes of film distribution, it played in Seattle in 3D IMAX. I’d love to see this one that way!
The cast was mostly unfamiliar to me, with only Carina Lau returning from the first film and playing the stern Empress once again. The only other face that was familiar to me was Angelababy, who plays the beautiful courtesan and whom I previously saw in Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero. This time she doesn’t get to kick ass, but rather is reduced to a damsel in distress role. In fact, the film is unusual for Tsui Hark in not really having any kick ass women in it, although Lau is suitably forbidding as the powerful Empress.
The one complaint I had was that the final confrontation with the sea monster felt anticlimactic and extraneous after the much more satisfying wire-and-CGI-enhanced martial arts clash with the lead villain. I’m sure 12-year-olds will love the monster, but not even the sheer outrageousness and absurdity of this sequence rescued it for me. But what really made the film, beyond the action scenes and some nice character moments for Dee and his nerdy sidekick, Shatuo, was the oddball humor, which ranges from the use of male virgin urine as an antidote, to a mad scientist character who inexplicably has a left arm that formerly belonged to an ape. Now there’s a mystery that even the brilliant Detective Dee couldn’t solve.