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Friday, 10 August 2018

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison reviews Tsui Hark's DETECTIVE DEE: THE FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS

Tsui Hark's Di Renjie zhi Sidatianwang/Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is a handsome extension of the Detective Dee series with back references to the Sea Dragon which Dee overcame in the previous episode. It regrettably fails to deliver the charge it’s excellent production values suggest.

The emperor is so pleased with his exploits that he makes Mark Chao’s Dee keeper of the Dragon Taming Mace. It was forged from starlight, a great honour, and treacherous Empress Wu  (Carina Lau in imposing middle age) sees it as a barrier to her plot to take control of the Tang Empire. She recruits Dee’s sworn brother Feng Shaofeng/Yuchi Zhenjin to steal the mace and thus discredit Dee. The friend is torn between his loyalty to the empire and to Dee. Shaofeng is given the assistance of the sinister master who brings with him the four Wind Warriors, aka Taoist Jianhu magicians. 

However, behind them are the vengeful Indian masked clan playing the Empress at her own game. Their leader keeps on threatening to use the ultimate weapon,  which resembles a giant egg beater.

This plot, if you can dignify it with such a term, is buried in the extraordinary barrage of special effects and folklorico decor.

Carina Lau as Empress Wu
I’ve followed Tsui Hark’s career from his 1979 Dip bin/Butterfly Murders, a subject not unlike this one, which I enjoyed rather more. He must be regarded as one of the world’s leading directors and his Once Upon a Time in China series is a landmark. To tell the truth I prefer the goofy action movies he knocked out from Hong Kong before the ponderousness of the mainland cinema engulfed him. One can still spot the giant pastel-shade prayer wheels sheltered by coloured parasols which the horsemen speed past and we’ve got another androgynous shape shifting villain, but now all the action goes to a gold dragon brought to life by the evil magicians to demolish the palace or digital demons with  eye-covered bodies battling a shaven headed trainee Buddha who rides a giant albino gorilla. 

Mark Chao (front) as Detective Dee
Buried in all this, Dee is a kind of colourless hero. He doesn’t make jokes and his deducting is pretty humdrum - acting as a kind of historical Penn & Teller revealing the giveaway props that unmask the Jianhui illusions. Pity! I quite liked the indoors rainstorm or the dragon’s fire breathing. The Emperor's applause for these makes him a more interesting protagonist

When chanting the sutras doesn’t work, Dee’s best move is to persuade the monk that the concerns of this life must be resolved before obtaining enlightenment. Not show stopping. 

Side kick Kenny Lin Genxin does better getting some sexy by play with lady magician Sichun Ma who seems to be set up for a spot in a further episode.

The subsequent events epilogue they bury in the end titles is notably less effective than the one in Beirut.

Dee’s character seems to have minimal connection with the Tang dynasty Judge Dee of Chinese literature, apparently one of the first fictional detectives and arriving, via Robert van Gulik’s translation, as a kind of prototype Philo Vance, solving mysteries by bringing the suspects into situations where they reveal their true natures.

Now that the monster budget Asura, on which the inflating Chinese industry’s hopes were riding, has sunk leaving a trail of bubbles, this film is carrying a considerable weight of expectation. There’s an immense amount of skill, effort and imagination involved. It must have looked marvelous in the 3D IMAX copy they won’t show us. 

This still makes it worth a look on its own, though it's down to one sparsely attended late night show a day here. However, I can’t help feeling that a writer with a wider readership than my own got the measure of such endeavours - sound and fury signifying nothing.
Tsui Hark

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