‘Young Detective Dee’ is a disappointing prequel

Prequels are often disappointing because if the story was so exciting, the writers and producers would have started out with it. When the cast and crew that don’t return, you can almost guarantee disappointment. “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” is no exception.

My husband laughed, but at points where the plot was ludicrous and not where the writers intended to give the audience a few chuckles. This movie employs a lot of hokey plot devices: sacrificial maidens, creepy crawly insects, gravity-defying feats and feet, and a horse that is not mystical like Silver in the recent Lone Ranger movie, but just as much a super hero at the right moment.

Detective Dee or Dee Renjie (狄仁傑;) is a historical figure, an official of the late Tang Dynasty who survived into the deadly Zhou Dynasty, somewhat dulling the cruelty of Wu Zetian. Detective Dee was introduced to the world cinematic world most recently in the 2010 “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and Dee was played by Andy Lau. The movie took place in 689 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty with , Carina Lau, as the empress Wu Zetian. Tsui Hark directed with a script by Kuofu Chen.

Lau is the only returning cast member and though she is still suitably formidable as her sculptured hair is impressively high (think of a three-layer wedding cake height), the plot is neither high-minded nor impressive.  Kuofu Chen’s script doesn’t take Dee back as far as the 1985 “Young Sherlock Holmes” took that legendary detective. We don’t get to see Dee as a young lad formulating his investigative style and sharpening his deductive reasoning and martial arts skills.

In “Young Detective Dee,” the young detective (now played by Mark Chao) has already received some fame in his hometown and he is sent with recommendations to the capital, Luoyang. Dee arrives in time to see a beautiful young courtesan being carried down the streets. She, Ruiji (Angelababy), will serve as a sacrifice to the sea monster who has just destroyed the imperial fleet.  How the people know that the monster needs a young maiden and will be satisfied with just one, isn’t adequately explained, but is it any more logical than having a virgin or Joe jump into a volcano?

Dee quickly ends up imprisoned because of his impetuous ways and because the police system is corrupt.  With the help of a young prison doctor (Lin Genxin), Dee escapes.

Ruiji becomes the object of desire of two different factions: a sea creature (that some have called a kappa) and a gang of men who speak a distinctive dialect. The sea creature reminded me of that creature from the Black Lagoon but in this case, there is a distinct reason why the monster has a humanoid form.  The murderous gang of men are training the sea monster.

Instead of fleeing the capital and the murderous empress who seems modeled after the Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, Dee arrives in time to save Ruiji–suspiciously before another detective Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng, also known as William Feng) can arrive on the scene.

Ruiji’s true love was the master of a famous tea house, one that supplied a special tea meant only for the imperial house. After he refused to reveal the special recipe to some foreigners, he finds himself slowly transformed into a scaly monster who must fight his bestial nature to recognize his love Ruiji.

Dee consults with his doctor friend about scaly skin problem that hand lotion won’t resolve. The good doctor takes him to his teacher, a crazy man who regularly experiments on his students and servants and has transplanted an ape’s arm to replace his own as he waits for an available human part.  The mad doctor does have a solution, but it will take time and then there’s that empress with the patience of a boiling tea kettle.

At some point, Dee with re-unite the lovers as humans, a dastardly plan to take down the Tang Dynasty will be averted (after all, it is history), he will live on to save Empress Wu and the Sea Dragon will be seen, discovered and defeated. How the heck a horse helps is really part of the silliness.  The Sea Dragon, once it appears, it a bit of a disappointment and reminds one of the creatures of the Godzilla era.

Detective Dee deserves better and Tsui Hark and writer Kuofu Chen need to shake their obsession with poisonous bugs. Chao doesn’t have the charisma to counter Lau’s empress–no one in this movie does. Hark and Chen haven’t come up with a reasonable explanation as to why Dee would stay in the capital after being imprisoned by the branch he was meant to serve and Chao’s Dee isn’t particularly emotionally complex. While the first Dee movie looked for earthly explanations to mysterious occurrences and came up with unlikely conclusions, this Dee looks to supernatural to help resolve plot twists and turns.  “Mystery of the Phantom Flame” had more emotional depth and the CGI was more convincing than the sometimes cheesy special effects of “Rise of the Sea Dragon.”

Save your time (the movie runs 133-minutes and started almost 20 minutes late at the Monterey Park AMC). There are two additional clips interspersed in the ending credits and the credits drag on for a long time.




  1. The plot was indeed preposterous and I wish there had been more detective work in the film. But I think it was intended only as a device to hang wonderfully inventive martial arts sequences.
    I thought Mark Chao was wonderful it and Carina Lau (despite the hairdo) did manage to create a nuanced character.


    • I agree. I wish there was more detective work in this prequel and some kind of backstory about Dee, his family and how he developed his methods that would make him famous.


      • I think Dee is quasi-historical character and the audience is already supposed to know a bit about him. I first heard about him through Robert van Gulick’s Judge Dee series of detective novels.
        But possibly there will be more backstory in the next ‘prequel’–I’ve already heard rumours about one.


      • Both my husband and I had, before we met, read Detective Dee stories. He is indeed a historical figure ( 狄仁傑). I enjoy a good detective story, and both of us feel that the “Young Detective Dee” doesn’t do justice to the genre and to Detective Dee as a historical figure.

        We both feel the 2011 “Dragon” was a better detective movie. We haven’t given up on Detective Dee and hope the next Detective Dee movie will be better and won’t involve poisoning via bugs.


  2. Are you kidding? What movie did you see? This is a great movie! I don’t trust what the critics say any longer. I really enjoyed this movie. Fun, and smart. Beautifully directed and kitschy acting. I loved it! Look, I grew up in San Francisco, friends with Wa Ching gang members (we went to school together). A steady diet of Bruce Lee movies without sub-titles in Chinatown movie theater, The Great Star! I introduced this movie to my grandson (15yrs) and he LOVES it! So, if you look at it with just your American filter, then yes, you don’t get it. In all fairness, you really shouldn’t be critique for this type of film. JMO.


    • So because you grew up in San Francisco and were friends with the Wah Ching gang members who were involved in murder, extortion, drug trafficking, loan sharking and illegal gambling that makes you less American? More Chinese? Have more street cred?

      Edmund Lee of the South China Morning Post gave it three stars. Japancinema.net gave it a B. Did they have problems with an “American filter”? You don’t have to trust them either.

      Since I’m not interested in being involved with murderers, extortionists, illegal gamblers or loan sharks, it’s not likely that I would trust the judgment of someone who so proudly proclaims friendships with such people. And in this case, I’m not just referring to your taste in cinema.



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