Dee-lightful vibe, poor plot in Tang detective prequel

Dee-lightful vibe, poor plot in Tang detective prequel
Cinema still: Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon starring Mark Chao (left) and Lin Gengxin

Review: Period thriller


134 minutes/Opens Friday, Sep 27

The story: In this prequel to Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010), Mark Chao takes over from Andy Lau in the role of Tang Dynasty investigator Dee Renjie. Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) tasks the Supreme Court's Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) to find out the truth behind the decimation of the naval fleet, supposedly by the Sea Dragon. And what exactly is courtesan Yin's (Angelababy) connection to yet another sea creature and how is that related to the attack at sea? Dee, newly arrived in the capital, gets involved in the complicated case with some help from young doctor Shatuo (Lin Gengxin).

The creative team of the earlier hit, director Tsui Hark and writer Chen Kuo-fu, reunite for this second film. And clearly, they believe in the mantra that bigger is better.

As you might surmise from the summary earlier, there is a lot going on here. Subsequently, the movie almost gets crushed under the weight of the story.

From the half-man, half-sea creature fixated with Yin, Dee gets a clue that points to a teahouse. The trail leads to a specific tea supplied to the royal court and a nefarious plot to topple the Tang Dynasty.

There are more plot twists and turns to navigate before the moviegoer gets to a tense face-off.

Hanging precariously onto ropes on a cliff-face over a yawning chasm, Dee and company have to fend off a highly skilled masked assailant - and yet this is not quite the finale.

With so many loose ends to tie up though, the movie begins to suggest to the audience that it simply will not end.

To be sure, the X-Files-meets-Sherlock Holmes vibe in a period China setting remains entertaining, and China actor Chen Kun is a hammy hoot playing a mad scientist-physician who has an ape's limb for one of his hands.

But there seem to be more cracks in the prequel. The patently fake-looking CGI takes one out of the story while Dee's ability to not just read lips but also do so from a distance, seems a tad too convenient.

While Andy Lau turned in a relaxed performance in his outing as the observant detective in the first movie, rising Taiwanese star Mark Chao's performance is a bit too smug in parts. You even start to sympathise with Yuchi for getting frustrated for being thwarted and outsmarted all the time.

Compared to the first movie, the women get short shrift here. Carina Lau, although reliably imposing as the empress, sees her role become smaller this time around. Angelababy is largely required to look good while flailing about in flowy robes.

There is still life in the Detective Dee franchise but the next instalment will have to do a better job in order to rise to the high expectations created by the first film.

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