Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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(You WILL believe a man can fly, provided he jumps hard and adds enough corkscrews in mid-air...)

One of the great things of film festivals is that they sometimes allow you a rare chance to experience foreign films as they are supposed to be seen. Little discoveries are great, of course, but to see a huge-budget extravaganza on a big screen in 3D is a treat as well. Case in point: the Imagine Fantastic Film Festival in Amsterdam showed Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 3D.

At first I was a bit apprehensive, as the word-of-mouth about the film coming from colleagues wasn't exactly flattering. I liked the previous Detective Dee film which starred Andy Lau, so a prequel without him obviously had a few strikes against it already. But when the very high audience ratings came in I decided to go see it anyway, and I'm glad I did, as a very good time was had by all.
So what's it about? Read on...

Imagine-Young-Detective-Dee-Rise-of-the-Sea-Dragon-ext1.jpgThe Story:

In pre-medieval China, weird things are afoot, or rather afloat. When the Chinese war fleet is rumored to have been attacked by a huge monster, the Empress orders an investigation into the event. To stop unrest, the rumor needs to be debunked successfully within a week or the chief of police will lose his head.

The chief of police is obviously not happy with this, but he gets help from Dee, a young and fearless detective who has just arrived in town. Dee is of the opinion that even the strangest events can be solved by solid police-work, as long as it uncovers the conspiracy behind it. Soon, young detective Dee is on the trail of rebels, lizard men and assassins. And on top of that he tries to save a beautiful courtesan from the wrath of the Empress herself...

The Movie:

I do not pertain to be able to imagine what happens inside the mind of director Tsui Hark. But when he was given the cinematic tool of 3D to work with, his brain must have screamed: "NEW TOY! NEW TOY!

For few directors have been able to so fully embrace the possibilities of 3D as can be seen in Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon.

Sure, objects will be thrown at the audience, and the camera will dive diabolically through virtual landscapes at times. But Tsui Hark does other things with 3D as well,some of which I've never seen before. Whenever Detective Dee notices something, details in the crowd, a face, or a belt buckle, it will move slightly forward in 3D, becoming more eye-catching. A cloud of invisible poison gas has its edge marked with a slight 3D-ripple-effect. When foreign languages are spoken, subtitles appear which move around objects. Only a few minutes in the film, some subtitles are even washed off of the screen by the same high waves which push the Chinese fleet aside, straight into the camera.

Speaking of the opening minutes: when a movie's pre-opening sequence is more spectacular than most films in their entirety, you know you're in for something special. Hell, even the opening credit sequence itself beats most films.

Tsui Hark is of course perfectly able to get wild enough in two dimensions already, and that is putting it mildly. In Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, he put Andy Lau in a martial arts fight with talking deer, and it's hard to think of him being able to conjure up anything stranger than that. In Young Detective Dee, he sure tries though: people use impossible physical prowess to battle armored killers, swarms of bees and, with the help of a catapult to gain sufficient height, a Godzilla-sized monster.

Oh, and in this world, you can use martial arts to scale buildings. No matter how high a tower, a few twists and turns in mid-air will always provide you straight access to the roof.

It's fair to say then, that the Detective Dee films are not exactly known for historical accuracy, nor was that obviously ever the intention. Tsui Hark shows China as a fairy-tale wonderland, akin to the Bagdad of countless Alladdin and Sinbad films, with unflappable heroes having to rescue beautiful maidens from fearsome monsters.

So go in with the mind of a twelve-year-old expecting to see a Ray Harryhausen film, and you will be entertained no end. Young Detective Dee is a gloriously sumptuous-looking film, the art direction leaking opulence with every scene.

And Kenji Kawai in full bombastic-mode provides an orchestral soundtrack, so the film sounds as great as it looks.

For the role of young Detective Dee, Andy Lau was replaced with Mark Chao, and surprisingly Lau's absence doesn't harm the film. Chao doesn't look anything like a younger Lau, but he fills the shoes of the unshakable sleuth well enough. Angelababy provides the eyecandy as the damsel in distress, but on the female front it is Carina Lau as the Machiavellian Empress who has (and provides) most of the fun.

All in all this is silly entertainment on the grandest of scales, a Chinese counterpart to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But make no mistake: this film easily wipes the floor with all but the first film in that series. I was surprised with how much I enjoyed myself. And I wasn't the only one, as the film ended high in the Imagine Festival's audience rating list.

I haven't even mentioned the end credits, which are full of as-yet-unused design art, tweaked into wonderful 3D dioramas. Judging from these, we can in the future expect a Detective Dee and the Battle of the Hounds of Hell, a Detective Dee Versus the Sixteen-armed Statue of Death, a Detective Dee: Curse of the Celestial Worms and a Detective Dee and the Temptation of the Nymphomaniac Mermaids.

And as long as Tsui Hark is on board, I'm up for all of these and more!

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HowardJune 9, 2014 2:40 PM

Caught this on netflix, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film for the first hour...then it all went to shit. The more it dragged on, the more it became a convoluted trainwreck that seemingly kept going with no end in sight. Let's just say Tsui Hark lost his touch, doesn't know when to end a movie 1hr early..the CGI became cheap and tiring to the eyes. The acting was MEH..especially all Chinese actresses who can't even emote proper emotion. Sad to say but Japanese/Korean cinema > mainland movies.

GBannisJune 9, 2014 9:23 PM

Young Detective Dee has been available on Netflix Streaming, although in 2D. It's a fun film. A bit confusing compared to the first, but all in good humor. Glad to know I might be able to catch it in 3D some time, somewhere.

RouseyJune 11, 2014 7:49 AM

Howard, what a ridiculous statement to make, all Chinese actresses who cant emote proper emotion, forgetting the questionable grammar, Japanese/Korean cinema has offered up some of the greatest movies ever made, and what makes them great is that the directors don't dumb the movies down to suit an American audience, hence why most remakes of such movies are awful.

HowardJune 12, 2014 1:43 PM

even though the special FX budget is huge for movies like Detective Dee and Monkey King, the CGI is still crappy! Stop allocating all ur $ into cheesy graphics and instead focus on telling a structured coherent story! I've lost hope for big-budgeted chinese movies..

billydakingJune 29, 2014 7:37 PM

Just watched it, and I gotta disagree at least in regards to story. It's no more convoluted than a Sherlock Holmes story, and since this is a partially a mystery, that's the way it should be. Seven Swords was a trainwreck (redeemed a bit by a good climax). Both Dee films have been straight-forward mysteries, especially in comparison to Hark's classic work, and just as fun (I take it you've never really followed 1980s and 1990s wuxia, in which Tsui had his heyday?).

The CGI though? nearly ruined the movie for me. It probably was a blast to watch in 3-D, because of what Hark does with it, but watching it in 2-D exposes the overall quality as mostly mid-aughts video game level. When Jade Warrior, a movie made 8 years ago on a fraction of Dee's budget, has overall cgi that leagues better, you're doing it wrong.