After the highly entertaining antics of our afterlife bureaucrats in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, The Boy and I left the Flower to her teenage wasteland and trundled off to Chinatown to see Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, the latest in the Chinese Detective Dee saga. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, or maybe briefly back in 2010 when it first kicked off, but the trailer grabbed me, with dragons and magic and swords and what-not.
It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable. It was also kind of cool that it was directed by Tsui Hark, who’s been around for quite some time. (As a producer, he worked with both John Woo and Woo-Ping Yuen, for example. As a director, he’s probably most famous for the Once Upon A Time In China series.)
The story is that Detective Dee, having so impressed the Emperor (it’s, uh, fantasy medieval time period of some sort) with his service, is rewarded (or tasked) with the care of a mystical mace. This sends the Empress into a jealous rage and she immediately sets her assassins on him, including one of Dee’s trusted friends. Dee is sent on a wild goose chase as the Empress searches his quarters for the mace (leading to a clever, cute scene where the would-be burglars fall for the detective’s many traps).
But after the initial scene, the mystery/detective aspects of the film fall quickly to the action sequences. There is a mystery afoot, but it hardly feels very important between the action and characters. The funny thing here is that there is what one might call traditional kung-fu sort of magic, with various martial artists having techniques that might, in another part of the world, be regarded a superpowers—while at the same time there is drug-induced hallucination which appears to be magical. This adds a layer of shall-we-say-challenge? to actually figuring out the mysterious aspects of the film.
There’s a mystery-behind-the-mystery which is tipped off (not in a bad way) and probably more significant if you have a grasp of Chinese history and particularly with Sino-Indic relations, as the Empress is herself just a puppet for a greater evil. This greater evil is surprisingly literalized, though the whole thing is soaked in drug-induced illusion. Sort of amusingly, the movie’s semi/quasi-happy ending has multiple stingers which outline an entire other movie’s worth of action and shenaningans complete with a series of unhappy endings. I assume this is also related to Chinese history.
Each individual bit, however, whether it’s action or spectacle or character piece, comes off as entertaining, so you’re never bored despited the over-two-hour runtime. At the same time, this isn’t great the way the Korean movies typically are, or even the way the best Chinese films are. But The Boy came out with a pretty positive viewpoint, in which he expressed what he often does after seeing Korean or Chinese movies.
“It doesn’t feel like,” he often says, “the director hates me.” And this is true, Asian films want to be liked, and if they have snobbery and elitism (and how could they not?) it doesn’t come through. One really does feel, when watching them, that one is part of a “let’s have fun” activity. Again, it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact of Chinese Communism, but maybe it’s because even the Chicoms recognize the value of being popular in a way that Hollywood disdains.
We definitely had fun, and I was intrigued at the idea of watching the previous films in the series.