In 1985, director Barry Levinson directed a movie called Young Sherlock Holmes. It was a movie about … well, the title should give you a clue. If it’s remembered today, it’s because the movie was considered a landmark in special effects. The movie featured a stained glass knight that happened to be the first character that was fully animated in CGI.
In 2010, Tsui Hark directed a movie called Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Detective Dee is based on a real official of the Tang Dynasty: Di Renjie, a chancellor in the court of Empress Wu Zetian. The movie version, though, has was often been referred to as a Sherlock Holmes type. “These films are essentially a Chinese take on Sherlock Holmes—Guy Ritchie’s Holmes more so than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s,” says our site’s most bitter rival, Fandor. The first movie featured Andy Lau, best known for Infernal Affairs, as a title character.
His next movie in the series was a prequel, where the title character was now Young Detective Dee with Mark Chao playing a young version of Andy Lau. His bestest pal is a doctor named Shaotou (Lin Gengxin), and he works with Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) from the Ministry of Justice. The movie would do really well and lead to a sequel, which retained all of the same actors but dropped the “young” out of the title. Mark Chao is now your primary Detective Dee. And that’s the movie we’re reviewing today: Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Knights… because that’s the one that’s currently available on streaming in the US.
With me so far?
Well, there was a reason I mentioned Young Sherlock Holmes. It was always weird, to me, that the first CGI character appeared in a Sherlock Holmes story. His adventures don’t seem to lend to grand display of special effects. Maybe he’ll find something small like whatever an orange pip is, or hear rumors about a speckled band. You might make a case for the Hound of the Baskervilles… but there’s nothing you can’t do with a mastiff and glow-in-the-dark flea powder. Sherlock Holmes stories were always grounded in reality because the great detective always found a logical solution behind the inscrutable. He didn’t have to worry about magic stained-glass window knights.
Well, young Detective Dee may have all the superficial traits of a Sherlock Holmes story, but while watching it I couldn’t help but think it was way more Barry Levinson than Guy Ritchie. At various points in the movie, our heroes are bedeviled by a whole menagerie of fantastic beasts. Where to find them? Generally in the vicinity of the imperial palace. The royal family is beset by CGI golden dragons and multi-eyed demons.
What makes this less jarring, though, is that Tsui already established that his version of Detective Dee already takes place in a fantasy version of ancient China. The movie opens with a cadre of misshapen assassins with magical weapons. One of them is gray, round witch woman who looks like she stepped out of a Samurai Shodown arcade cabinet. With these colorful folks running around, then there’s a pretty good chance that the long, golden dragon wrecking the Imperial Palace is the for-real thing and not some sort of mechanical beastie unleashed by Old Man McGillicutty that would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that accursed young Detective Dee. Instead, I left wondering why the palace wasn’t designed to let this dragon pass through like they do for modern skyscrapers.
Tsui is one of the strongest influences in modern Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. Back in the 80’s, he was one of the first directors to bring Hollywood technicians to bring Western-style special effects to a wu xia movie. (That movie being Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain.) The current Chinese box office champs are filthy with big budget special effects that seem to mirror the same trends happening in the US. Scenes from Detective Dee can at times feel like The Avengers or Transformers or even Rampage… the global apotheosis of “shut off your brain entertainment.” As if to prove its bonafides with its Western cousins, Detective Dee also includes a couple of cant-miss post-credit sequences.
It did make me wonder how Chinese audiences would regard the movie’s treatment of people who existed in the real world. Isn’t turning a real life official like Di Renjie as a handsome kung-fu master kinda like turning Abraham Lincoln into an axe-wielding vampire hunter?
Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) isn’t treated very respectfully either, though I suppose a healthy disdain for the imperial family in this post Cultural Revolution world is not a unique trait in Hong Kong/Chinese movies. The plot involves a sword she covets. The Emperor has bestowed a legendary sword to Detective Dee as a present, and the Empress wants it back. But wait! It turns out that she serves a secret master… someone who is very much an Emperor Palpatine type.
To serve her ends, she tries to divide our heroes. Yuchi, who works directly for her, is tasked to get the sword back. Dee, who knows the game and that Yuchi is only his adversary by imperial fiat, must navigate the political minefields to prevent his friends from getting into trouble while at the same time avoiding the tip of the assassin’s blade. The first half of the movie is a massive shell game. Even the Doctor Watson gets involved in the sexiest game of all when he’s tasked with seducing the lady assassin.
But then… [spoiler title=’SPOILERS’]a giant white gorilla shows up and a kaiju battle breaks out in the middle of the Chinese Sherlock Holmes movie.[/spoiler]
My wife wondered why Hollywood doesn’t make fantastical movies rooted in historical traditions. It occurred to me that we do, somewhat. What are superhero movies but twisted events of reality where people could fly and shoot lasers out of their hands? Some recent examples have scenarios where shrinking people saved the Cold War, or an Amazon warrior prevented a disaster in World War I. That’s American myth-making, where our histories are shorter but the dream of heavenly kings who fight otherworldly dangers never died.
Can you imagine if, in the 90’s, some sort of marvelous captain came to Earth and saved grunge music, rollerblades, and pogs from shape-shifting goblins? One can only dream, dear reader. One can only dream.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is available for streaming on Netflix.