‘Dee’ solves box-office riddle

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-13 18:43:01

Angelababy in <em>Rise of the Sea Dragon</em> Photo: CFP

Angelababy in Rise of the Sea Dragon Photo: CFP

With 339.11 million yuan ($55.41 million) in box-office takings, domestically made martial arts thriller Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon sleuthed its way to the top during the National Day holidays screen period from September 30 to October 6, earning more than half of the weekly box-office revenue in the Chinese mainland.

Although the film is not without its flaws, it's able to stand up, at least in the Chinese mainland, against Hollywood blockbusters.

The Dee Dynasty

Premiering on September 28, Rise of the Sea Dragon is Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's latest work, and a prequel to his 2010 film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the story of Rise of the Sea Dragon unfolds before Wu Zetian, China's only female emperor, ascends the throne. Detective Di, more commonly known as Dee, makes his name in the imperial court. In his very first task, investigating reports of a sea monster, Dee discovers a plot that threatens the imperial court.

There have been several previous movies and TV series portraying the character of Dee, who is very loosely based on Di Renjie (630-700), a famous magistrate and court official renowned for his sense of justice and his skills as a detective. Di later became the subject of a series of detective stories, and, in the West, is the hero of many books by Dutch Sinologist, writer and diplomat Robert van Gulik.

The plot can hardly be called original, and the storytelling is often stale, but the cinematography and special effects do make an impression. As Tan Fei, movie critic and film producer, commented on his Sina Weibo early last week, the special effects are "close to the Hollywood level."

Departures from the original

Rise of the Sea Dragon has a younger cast than the previous film. In the role of Dee, veteran actor Andy Lau is replaced by Mark Chao, an actor born in 1984 who made his name in recent films like Monga (2010) and So Young (2013). But this film has been better received than its predecessor.

Though Mystery of the Phantom Flame garnered a Golden Lion nomination at the Venice Film Festival in 2010, most people agree Rise of the Sea Dragon is bolder, better designed and more colorful. Tsui seems to have learned from his experiments in both Mystery of the Phantom Flame and his Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), and makes more interesting use of 3D technology in this movie, plus he combines wuxia (martial arts) storytelling with investigative plots.

The younger cast, as some critics point out, changes the mood of the film. "Compared with Mystery of the Phantom Flame, [which left a] depressing and dark feeling, Rise of the Sea Dragon is more bright and cheerful," movie critic Zeng Nianqun wrote in the Beijing News.

Zeng attributes this to the comedy in the film, as well, which "mostly comes from the teasing of the imperial authorities - all the imperial families, including the emperor, have to drink the urine of eunuchs as an antidote for poison," he added.

Beijing-based movie critic Zhao Xiangyu gives the film six out of 10 points. "Tsui is a director who has a zeal for film technology," Zhao told the Global Times. "Focusing too much on technology, he forgot to tell a good story."

And historically speaking, the movie is full of flaws both small and significant. For instance, Luoyang, the capital of the Tang Dynasty (Wu Zetian later removed the capital from Chang'an to Luoyang), is located in Henan Province, Central China, far from the sea, making it impossible for a sea dragon to attack there, no matter the implausibility of the dragon itself. And the insect poison used in the film is more typically found in southwestern China, not in the east as the film claims.

Yang Duojie, a netizen, also pointed out on Sina Weibo that in the film there is a scene in which tea leaves are stir-fried, but in fact, such technology "became mature in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). [During Tang], it should be steaming." 

Eastern appeal

Despite differing opinions of the film, many insiders think Rise of the Sea Dragon is the latest in a string of Chinese blockbusters that have successfully created their own style.

"Tsui has set the blueprint for a Detective Dee franchise," Zeng Nianqun wrote in the Beijing News.

Tan expects this type of Eastern fantasy film to be big in China for the next three to five years.

He said the story works because Dee is a widely known figure to the Chinese audience, and that the storytelling is more appealing than in foreign films.

Tan has reservations about such films' performance overseas.

"It may not be that easy for a foreign audience to understand a story put in a certain historical background," he said. 

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