Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

The anarchist prankster Tsui Hark who burst onto the Hong Kong scene over 30 years ago with Dangerous Encounters – First Kind and We’re Going to Eat You still lurks underneath layers of glossy CGI as the eponymous detective, in order to counter-act their poisoned tea, orders all 1200 members of the Tang Dynasty Imperial household to drink bowls of eunuch urine.

Like the first Detective Dee film, this one is a tightly plotted adventure film, more Indiana Jones than Sherlock Holmes, set in a semi-magical 7th Century China (Dee was a real historical figure, fictionalized in an 18th Century detective novel that was translated into a series of English language novels in the 1940s and 50s by Robert van Gulik). It’s missing the star presence of Andy Lau, but Mark Chao does a creditable job taking over the starring role in this prequel, tall and thin with a neat goatee, he looks a bit like Tsui himself. (His rival, a fellow detective played by Feng Shaofeng, looks unnervingly like James Spader or Martin Sheen or some unholy combination thereof). Like Tsui’s last several films, digital effects dominate, not just in spectacular destruction sequences or massive background sets, but in the manipulation of actors and space in the fight scenes.

At some point, I’d like to explore in detail the effect of CGI on Hong Kong martial arts films. Since The Matrix (of course choreographed by HK legend Yuen Woo-ping), digital filmmaking has come to dominate the industry, the much-needed infusion of cash from the opening of the mainland market has made reasonably competent effects a part of seemingly every film. This is a fulfillment of the vision Tsui Hark himself had 30 years ago when he imported Hollywood technicians to work on the effects for Zu: Warriors form the Magic Mountain, but in doing so it seems to have shifted the balance away from the verisimilitude that so many people value in certain Hong Kong films. It’s the Jet Li vs. Jackie Chan, wire fu vs. realistic stunts argument again, but never has one side seemed so close to winning the argument outright, with even this generation’s most talented fighters choosing the safer, CGI-driven route (see the difference between Tony Jaa’s first Ong Bak film, all bone-crunching stuntwork and its two digital sequels (well, prequels I guess) in another, parallel film industry).

The problem with this is that so much of the CGI in these films is cheap-looking, at least to those of us used to the state of the art effects produced in Hollywood. But that was always the case. Zu, and the fantasy wuxia films that followed it, always looked phony compared to the blockbusters Hollywood was putting out in the 80s and 90s, and of course Hong Kong’s sound technology has made a tradition of cheap dubbing. But is there something about this particular version of cheapness that is somehow worse? I don’t know. We can look back now at the effects in, say, Ching Siu-tung’s 80s and 90s films like Swordsman II or the Heroic Trio films he did with Johnnie To and appreciate the verve of the filmmaking and the dizzying speed of his choreography. We don’t really get hung up on how cheap they look compared to The Abyss or Beetlejuice. Maybe it’s that we need more time, that eventually cheap CGI will acquire a patina of charming nostalgia.

I do know this, the quality of the effects is not enough alone to obscure the quality of the filmmaking. Despite its relative cheapness, Young Detective Dee contains more visual imagination, more creative sequences, more memorable images than any Marvel superhero film. The fight scenes, choreographed by longtime Johnnie To stunt coordinator Yuen Bun, are clever and fun, and Tsui films them with a youthful elan, cutting into slow motion to emphasize the beauty of a (yes digitally-enhanced) movement, or into a Matrix-inspired split image as a man flashes his sword faster than the eye could track to dispatch a swarm of angry digital bees. There’s even the best hanging from a cliff fight since Temple of Doom. Who cares how textured the image is when it’s of a man racing a horse across the half sunken remains of a battleship with poisoned fish flying through the air all around him and into the gaping maw of a giant sea dragon?

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