A prequel to Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, this film follows a young Dee Renjie on his first case. Arriving in the Imperial Capital, Dee's only dream is to become a law enforcement officer. Detective Yuchi is assigned to look into a sea monster that is terrorising the city at night. When the monster attacks a ceremonial procession for an exquisite courtesan, Yin, being sacrificed to the Gods, Detective Yuchi and Dee manage to fend off the beast and save her. Yuchi doesn't trust Dee and throws him in prison but he escapes with the help of a doctor, Shatuo. Together they uncover a conspiracy, that has the Imperial Court addicted to a poisoned tea, that us made by Yuan's tea house. Yuan, who was Yin's lover, is missing and Dee and his new friend need to figure out how all these pieces connect to save people's lives.
Before I get into this review, let it be known that before I even sat down to watch Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, I already had a problem. If there is one thing that sequels have going for them is that at least they are not prequels. Anything with the word 'Young’ in the title (Young Sherlock Holmes, Young Indiana Jones) has a mark against it from the start. Not because nothing important happens when we’re young, but because nothing interesting or memorable is likely to happen to an established character that is likely to effect his personality and so there’s nothing to be concerned about.
much of it just feels like padding
But there was a chance. Tsui Hark, one of the most prolific and versatile directors (and producers) to emerge from the Hong Kong boom of the 1980s, is always full of surprises and has delivered some startling and memorable work over the years (The Blade, Once Upon A Time in China, Time and Tide and the delirious Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain would be good starting points). But that’s not to say that he’s consistent. The quality of Tsui’s work varies greatly (Double Team anyone?), but with this film following hot on the heels of the director’s first 3D film in 2011, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (which remains one of the few 3D films of the current boom that actually understands that 3D films should directed differently, not just shot differently) and capitalising on the success of the enjoyably entertaining Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), there seemed to be grounds for hope.
In this adventure, the young Detective Dee is played by Mark Chao (and so therefore isn’t that young) instead of Andy Lau who originated the role in the 2010 film. While investigating the cause of the sea monster attack on a fleet of warships that opens the film, Dee gets caught up in the internal politics of the eastern capital of Luoyang by helping to save courtesan Yin Ruiji (Angelababy Yeung Wing) from kidnappers and a scaly amphibian biped who wants the beautiful woman for his own reasons.
Tsui offers some spectacular set pieces with the best of these being the final sea monster attack that occurs after most of the story’s machinations have been thankfully exhausted. However, in an effort to be visually bigger and better than its predecessors, this prequel falls into an oft-repeated trap of ambition reaching so high that even increased resources are visibly stretched thin. Some big budget action fans will find this as visually compelling as Pacific Rim for example, but it shares that same two-dimensional cut-outs look of many computer games. Additionally, the film is poorly edited, so that many an optical effect is fleetingly preceded by a plainly evident split second freeze frame where all the elements have been put in place before the computers take over. And for all the regal opulence, and a myriad of martial arts activity, much of it just feels like padding, lacking the dynamism of Tsui’s best work.
Swirling beneath this phantasmagoria, is some kind of subtext about the political division of contemporary Chinese between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland. The reason, I suspect, that such a theme didn’t run into any censorship interference is because the Chinese government didn’t understand it any better than I did. Nevertheless, the implication seems to be, unless Chinese people learn to co-operate, a monstrous leviathan will drag them down to murky depths. However, I doubt the censors missed Tsui’s self-serving line delivered by Detective Dee about the hero’s reason for travelling to the heart of the crooked Da Lisi, because battling corruption and privilege at its source is 'the best place to do it". If Tsui (who’s never been afraid of a political metaphor in the past), or his co-scriptwriter Chang Chia-lu, think they are going to reform China from the inside, they’re kidding themselves"¦ that is unless they were talking about Hong Kong.