Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon becomes available today on Blu-ray, DVD & digital from Well Go USA. It's a s a prequel to Tsui's 2010 hit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. This review is based on viewing the Blu-ray version.
After the fleet of the Tang dynasty is largely destroyed by a mysterious sea monster, the Empress (veteran actress Carina Lau, recently of Beijing Love Story, the only actor from the first movie to reprise her role) orders Yuchi (William Feng), the head of Da Lisi (the Justice Department) to either solve the mystery within ten days or pay with his life.
Fortunately, Dee Renjie (Mark Chao, of Caught in the Web, here as a younger version of Andy Lau's Dee of the original film) arrives at Luoyang, where the Imperial Court is located, to begin serving at the Da Lisi. Dee is a brilliant investigator, a master of deductive reasoning, and a man of many useful talents, including lip reading. He's sort of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, only he's living hundreds of years before his British counterpart. Although Yuchi is initially suspicious of Dee, the two ultimately become allies.
Even before he's presented himself, Dee becomes aware of a plot to kidnap Yin Ruiji (Angelababy, of Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero), a courtesan at Swallow House. She is the main attraction in a procession intended to placate the sea monster. In the course of rescuing her, Dee encounters a bizarre creature who appears to be a mixture of reptile and human, sort of a "Creature from the Lotus Lagoon" if you will.
So we have two mysterious creatures and a pair of rival investigators. Add to the mix some hostile folk from Bat Island, which lies between China and Japan and a plot to destroy the royal Chinese court. Oh, and throw in some CGI special effects. Lots of CGI, in fact; some of it perfectly fine, some not so much so. Tsui seems to have never encountered a special effect that he couldn't find some way of using. Here we get a sea monster that's a cross between a huge manta ray and Moby Dick and a fantastic horse that seems capable not only of running on water but of swimming underneath the ocean's surface.
If this all seems a bit excessive, well it is. But that's okay, the film is more fanciful than Mystery of the Phantom Flame, but still quite enjoyable and entertaining. The only surprising thing to me is that there are absolutely no extras on the disk, a case of you're coming for the movie and that's all you're going to get. That being said, it must be mentioned that the Blu-ray version is gorgeous to behold.
ACF Rating: 3 out of 4 stars; recommended, even with the absence of special features.