Judge Michael Nazarewycz was disappointed to learn that this isn't the further adventures of What's Happening!!'s sassy sister Dee.
Who put their Syfy Channel in my Asian cinema?
My immersion into Asian cinema continues in 2014. Maybe in this case, though, the word "submersion" is more apt. I've watched many different subgenres of Asian films in the recent past, but fantasies involving sea monsters hadn't made my list until I screened Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
In seventh-century China, in the wake of a sea monster attack that has decimated the country's navy, eager law enforcement hopeful Dee (Mark Chao, Love) arrives at the Capital. He's not there long before he learns there is a plot afoot to kidnap the beautiful courtesan Yin (Angelababy, Tai Chi Zero). During this time, Empress Wu (Carina Lau, 2046) dispatches her top cop, Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng, White Vengeance), to investigate the monster attack. When the two men cross paths, Yuchi is suspicious of Dee and has him arrested. The two ultimately form a tenuous relationship when they realize that their goals are common. Those goals include keeping Yin safe; learning the secret of the sea monster (which seems to be roaming the land in near-human form as well); locating the whereabouts of local tea magnate Yuan (Kim Bum, That Winter, the Wind Blows), who has been missing for months; and thwarting a plot by Tang enemy factions to poison the ruling class and take over the land.
What a difference a Dee makes. Or rather, what a difference a "D" makes.
When Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon screened theatrically in China, it was presented in 3D, a fact I didn't know until I did further research after watching this 2D presentation. It explains so much. While I can't speak to the 3D experience, the technical execution of this film, when presented in 2D, is distracting to the point of diminishing the overall movie-watching experience—and it diminishes things right out of the gate.
The opening action sequence involves the Tang Navy coming under attack from a gigantic sea monster, which wreaks havoc as it destroys everything in its path. Unfortunately, that destruction looks like Syfy Channel-grade SFX when presented in 2D. I even went back to that sequence for a second look. Under the scrutiny of another flawless Blu-ray transfer and on a large HD screen, some of the VFX are cringe-worthy. The presentation of the rest of the film doesn't fare much better.
I won't offer the full list, but many of the (sometimes too long) wire-fu combat sequences are clearly directed for 3D, with intentional "It's coming right at you" shots (a practice I loathe as a general rule); and the head-on shots of people riding horses look like something out of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Comparatively, those scenes that require no 3D boost look almost muted compared to the 3D scenes. The whole visual presentation is its own worst enemy.
As for the film itself, a prequel to 2010's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (which I have not seen), there are several story lines operating at once, offering a mixed bag of experiences.
As always, Asian filmmakers' reverence for history is a highlight, and director Hark Tsui's (Once Upon a Time in China) representation of seventh-century China is no exception. The period-specific aspects of the film—costuming, makeup, settings, etc.—are beautifully detailed and never feel like cheap props, with lush colors and rich patterns. These are more pronounced in the SFX-heavier scenes, but even in flatter visual circumstances, the effort and care really show.
The plots vary. There are several threads present, including the sea monster, the love story of the beautiful courtesan and a beastly love interest, the warring factions in China, the tenuous relationship between the male protagonists, the plot to overthrow the ruling class, and the overall mystery aspect (which is tied to just about everything). The most interesting thread is the larger, politically flavored warring Chinese factions storyline. The most ridiculous is the plot to overthrow the ruling class and how that ties into the mystery aspect, as it plays like an episode of Scooby-Doo. How the bad guys get it done is one thing, but how the good guys hope to save the people is bonkers. Everything in between is varying degrees of okay.
As for the title character, Dee is a little too much like legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes in two key ways. First, the young man has uncanny powers of observation, deduction, and assumption. This is not necessarily exclusive to Holmes (see any Ellery Queen novel or Detective Robert Goren, as portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio on TV's Law & Order: Criminal Intent). However, the second key way—how those skills are portrayed onscreen—immediately summons to mind TV's Sherlock (the one starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). Devices employed in the film, like those on the BBC television program, include zoom-ins, spot-shadows, items "floating" in Dee's line of vision (another probably-better-in-3D effect), plus something unique: incredible lip-reading skills. That last item is most confounding, as it feels like a shortcut taken by filmmakers to save some time in an already long film. Dee even has opportunities to explain in great detail (sans Holmesian arrogance) all of the things he observed/deduced/assumed to come to a particular conclusion. Calling it homage is putting it politely.
Another Well Go USA Blu-ray transfer results in another fantastic 1080p image, for the double-edged sword that that is worth, but to add to the frustration of the dimension conundrum is the subtitle problem. Often, the subtitles appear and disappear far too quickly—to the point that dialogue is completely missed. I've watched a lot of foreign films (mostly Asian) in the last twelve months, both at home and in the theater; this is by far the worst subtitling experience I've had. That being said, the DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is terrific. All of those VFX need studio-created audio to go with them, and while at times the picture is tough to watch, the sound is never tough to listen to.
A handful of trailers is all you get in the extras department, simply adding to the frustration of the overall experience.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The acting in the film is actually pretty good. As campy as some of it could have been, with its monsters and its CGI and its wire-fu, no one hams it up. How Pyrrhic the victory.
Like watching an athlete lose a contest as a result of an equipment failure, the last thing I want to see is a film fail because of a technical snafu like this. Unfortunately, that is what has happened with this disc. I'd love to give Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Blu-ray) another chance in 3D someday.
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