By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Mark Chao, a native of Taipei and graduate of British Columbia’s University of Victoria, has played the semi-fictional, semi-historical Detective Dee before, to great effect. By his own admission, though, he was nervous about this latest film in the series from director Tsui Hark, “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings.”
Chao worried that director Hark might replace him in the role. Turns out he had nothing to worry about. At age 33, he’s still fresh-faced, bold, ready for anything, and ready with a wry smile, an invitation to not take things too seriously.
That wry smile comes in handy often, since the screenplay from Chia-Lu Chang and Kuo-Fu Chen goes heavy on wild fantasy. That’s always stock in trade for the franchise, which plays up the fictional, fantastic side of the Di Renjie (Detective Dee) character. But this time, we get a dragon, an abominable snowman the size of an office building, and a few other quite impossible things, courtesy of a bevy of CGI artists.
Chao, as Detective Dee, seems to be riding high as the film opens. The Emperor granted Dee the “Dragon Taming Mace,” as a reward for his efforts in the previous film, “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” and his position at court is a well-esteemed one.
But this success puts him at odds with the perpetually-scheming Empress Wu Zetian, played by Carina Lau. She wants to bring Dee down at any cost and to that, she’ll search the recesses of the criminal world, not to mention the world of black magic.
I won’t reveal everything that happens, except to say that fire spills, thunder rolls, arrows rain down (some aimed directly at the camera), and the dragon shows up, plus those other beasts.
Exactly what’s real and what isn’t becomes a matter of great convolution, as the plot proves full of trickery, illusion, mistaken identity, malicious disguises, and unstable alliances.
I started in on Tsui Hark’s gangster pictures, where he was fond of taking the viewer, via CGI, inside the gun about to be fired, so we could marvel at the shot that hadn’t quite emerged yet. The “Detective Dee” films happen, for all of their otherworldly splendor, in a pre-gun world, so he can’t make that move.
And while I held out at first, I have to admit I’ve come to appreciate Hark’s healthy sense of overkill. Every over-the-top creature or effect gets quickly supplanted by something else even further over the top, until any notion of “the top” disappears, and the best the humans can do is scramble through the chaos much more powerful forces leave, in their wake.
If I think too hard about that situation, I find some analogues to modern America, to who and what has power, and what those without power get stuck with. But if you just want to enjoy a wild story, that’s quite alright, too.
“Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings” opens July 27 at the AMC Pacific Place 11 Theater, 600 Pine Street, Pacific Place Mall, Seattle.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.