Legendary director Tsui Hark returns to direct the third film in the immensely successful Detective Dee franchise, starring Mark Chao, Carina Lau, Feng Shaofeng, Lin Gengxin and Ma Sichun. The previous two films have earned over USD$200m at the box office, gaining over twenty major award nominations in the process.
Following on from 2013’s “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon”, Taiwanese-Canadian actor and model Mark Chao returns as “Dee Renjie”. The role was originally played by Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau as an older version of the character in 2010’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”.
Portraying a real Tang Dynasty empress of China, Hong Kong actress Carina Lau returns as “Wu Zetian”. She has had a long and varied career starring in films such as “Armour of God”, “Days of Being Wild”, “Project A Part 2”, “She Shoots Straight”, “The Banquet” and “Ashes of Time”, as well as both previous instalments in the “Detective Dee” series. She is married to “The Grandmaster” star Tony Leung Chiu-wai.
Also reprising his role from “Young Detective Dee” is William Feng Shaofeng as “Yuchi Zhenjin”. He has appeared in Daniel Lee’s historical film “White Vengeance”, playing the powerful warlord Xiang Yu, and starred in the box office hits “Painted Skin: The Resurrection”, “Tai Chi Zero” and “Tai Chi Hero”.
Kenny Lin Gengxin is back as “Shatuo Zhong”, the former Prison Doctor who assisted Dee with his previous adventure. Lin has appeared in several Chinese box office hits including “Sword Master”, “My Old Classmate”, “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”, “God of War”, “The Great Wall” and “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back”.
Former child actress Sandra Ma Sichun stars as “Water Moon”. She was a Best Actress winner at the Golden Horse Awards and the Golden Screen Awards for her role in the 2016 romantic film “Soul Mate”.
Emperor Gaozong gifts Detective Dee the magical Dragon Taming Mace with instructions to protect the Tang Dynasty as he sees fit. Empress Wu fears Dee could use the power of the mace to overthrow her if he disagrees with her rule. The Empress orders the Head of the Golden Guard Yuchi Zhenjin, along with a jianghu group of mystics, to steal back the Mace, the consequence of which is capital punishment for Dee.
Yuchi is suspicious of the sorcerers’ motives, and unbeknownst to the Empress, the Mystic Clan have their own plans for the mace. Yuchi’s loyalties are torn between his duty to the Empress and his allegiance to Detective Dee, leaving him in a precarious situation.
Sensing a deeper conspiracy with traps at every turn, Detective Dee must go underground and use all of his puzzle-solving powers to save himself, his friends, and the Tang Dynasty.
Perhaps as a metaphor that lightness and skill can be powerful tools, we see Detective Dee trying to split a leaf floating in the wind, as he whips a thin cane through the air. Probably most likely though, the scene serves to gently introduce us to the 3D computer-generated imagery that permeates just about every frame of this film.
Fearing Dee’s power and influence with the Dragon Taming Mace, Empress Wu tasks Yuchi with retrieving it. He has a brief sword fight with a group of sorcerers known as the Mystic Clan. The sequence serves to remind us of his martial arts skills and to really cut loose with the impressive 3D visual effects. Led by the weather-summoning Huan Tian, the Mystic Clan feature Spectral Blades with his giant, crescent-shaped swords, the crazy, fire-bending sorceress Night Ghost, and a tricky magician called Smoke Volant. The highlight of the fight is the introduction of Water Moon, who Butterfly Twists her way around the courtyard, spraying deadly throwing stars in every direction.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings / Behind the Scenes #1
In the meantime, Dee is on a case using his deductive reasoning to solve the apparent mystery theft of an artist’s painting. It is brilliantly realised in rewinding flashbacks as Dee’s mind works through the clues. It leads to a trap by the sorcerers to poison Dee and retrieve the mace. However, forever the master of forethought, Dee has anticipated such a scheme and set some traps of his own! In amongst the CGI projectiles flying across the screen, there is some delightful duelling. In a pay-off from the earlier scene with a leaf, Dee fights off Smoke Volant with his cane. Their robes billowing and flowing majestically as they spin and cartwheel around each other.
Following his own set of clues, Yuchi is led to the Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings. He has perhaps the best fighting scene of the film when Spectral Blades confronts him in the Temple. The action plays to the 3D effects and uses wire work extensively. Even so, the fighting remains exciting with good use of slow motion to emphasise the weapons work.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings / Behind the Scenes #2
Water Moon has a mostly aerial battle with the rather creepy Wind Warriors as they fly around and leap across the city’s tiled roofs. The Wind Warriors morph into Harry Potter Dementor-like creatures chasing Water Moon, which allows her to perform some more practical stunts, such as somersaults and high falls.
The Wind Warriors’ grand, final assault on the bureau of investigations is an extravagant blend of stunts, wire enhancement, weapons duelling and computer effects. It very cleverly portrays the fantasy hallucinations of the guards with the reality of the action that is actually taking place. It’s no mean feat to make such a sequence coherent, and in another director’s hands, it could easily have resulted in a confusing mess. And I don’t want to give away too much of a spoiler, but I am guessing Tsui Hark is a big fan of King Kong!
Be sure to watch the end credits for a couple of bonus scenes and an extra twist in the tale!
The prolific director, producer and writer Tsui Hark has brought us some of the most entertaining and best looking Asian films over the years. From directing “Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain” to the “Once Upon a Time in China” series of movies, to writing or producing such acclaimed classics as “A Better Tomorrow”, “The Killer”, “A Chinese Ghost Story”, “Iron Monkey”, “The Swordsman”, and many, many more, he has built up a body of work that any film maker would envy. In recent years he has tried to push the boundaries of special effects technology so that Chinese films are on a par with the best of the Hollywood blockbusters. Some of his recent efforts may be guilty of style over substance, but Tsui Hark is surely one of the world’s leading directors of 3D visual effects.
With the previous Detective Dee movies, Tsui Hark managed to pump up the “substance” part of the movies to run parallel with the impressive visual style. The stories make for intriguing and often witty entertainment. For this third entry into the series, the plot strands are much more “by-the-numbers”, taking us from one colourful festival of special effects to the next. The practical sets and costumes also all feature bold and bright colours. The extended “Golden Dragon” sequence around the halfway mark of the film is particularly impressive. Everything looks so much better than the awful colour grading that seems to infest many modern action films. Dee even sports some “Mission: Impossible” style disguises! It is backed superbly with an appropriately epic music score from composer Kenji Kawai. Although the film is a tad long at over two hours, it canters by at a hearty pace.
For martial arts fans there is less recognisable action than in the previous episodes. This may be due to a change in action director in Lin Feng, the previous instalments having been overseen by Sammo Hung for the first movie and Yuen Bun for the second. Mark Chao seems much more at home in the role of Dee Renjie, and there are small moments where he looks just like Andy Lau. However, the nature of the plot means he is bizarrely absent from the screen for long periods, even though he is the lead actor and title character. The returning cast are on good form, as are the new faces, especially Sandra Ma Sichun. She has some great action scenes and shares the film’s best comic moments with Kenny Lin Gengxin.
For fantasy and wuxia fans and those who enjoy the Sherlock Holmes-like shenanigans of the Detective Dee films, this is another visually sumptuous feast of stunning scenes. Tsui Hark directs with such flair, that even in 2D you can’t help but be impressed by the energy and bold vibrancy of every frame in this colourful movie tapestry.
If you are lucky enough to have this showing in a cinema near you, I thoroughly recommend you grasp the opportunity with both hands!
- The Mystic Clan are referred to as “jianghu”. The Jianghu are a community of martial artists popular in many wuxia stories and, more recently, outlaw societies like the Triads.
- Action Director Lin Feng has previously appeared in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and was a stunt double for Jet Li in “The One”.
- Carina Lau won a Best Actress Hong Kong Film Award for her portrayal of Empress Wu in the first movie. She also secured a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2013 Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in the prequel, “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon”.
- The character of Judge or Detective Dee (sometimes called Judge Di) is a semi-fictional character based on the historical figure Di Renjie, a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. The character appeared in the 18th century Chinese detective and gong’an crime novel “Di Gong An”. A Dutch diplomat called Robert van Gulik came across the novel in an antique book store in Tokyo, and translated it into English. After its success he used the same style and characters to write his own original Judge Dee historical mystery stories.
- “This is the Dragon Taming Mace, forged in iron from stardust, harder than the Golden Stone, I grant the mace to your keeping. Use it to defeat evil, as is your duty, protect our nation, keep all things in balance.” – Emperor Gaozong (to Detective Dee.)
- “Attack a member of the Golden Guard and you attack the Emperor himself!“ – Yuchi
- “Dangerous people with weird skills” – Dee (describing the mysterious Wind Warriors.)
- “You got here just in time to die!” – Yuchi
- “Fine words, but that won’t stop you from dying!” – Faceless Lord
Film Rating: 7/10
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