For sheer, high-concept flights of fantasy, leavened with labyrinthine political intrigue, punctuated with blistering martial arts sequences and dusted with weird magic and mythology, it’s hard to go past the Detective Dee movies.
Directed by revered filmmaker Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), who has been the beating heart of Hong Kong cinema for decades now, they’re the sort of films that make you realise how tepid, even timid, so much Anglophone screen fantasy has become, dutifully reiterating tired tropes from either Tolkien-esque epic fantasy or Rowling-derived YA fodder with little variation. Catching a Detective Dee flick after subsisting on that lot is like necking a spoonful of hot chilli after a year of cold porridge – your senses just aren’t ready for the sudden shock.
Our setting is 7th century China and our hero is Di Renjie, a preternaturally gifted investigator on par with Sherlock Holmes in terms of analytical skills, and far surpassing Doyle’s detective when it comes to martial arts prowess. When we first meet him in 2009’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, where he was played by Andy Lau, he’s a rebel imprisoned for defying Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau). After a number of Imperial officials die after bursting into flames, Dee (technically Di, but let’s go with the title convention) is pulled from prison and set on the case, eventually uncovering a far-ranging magical conspiracy aimed at the Empress herself.
The next film in the series, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) is a prequel, with Mark Chao taking over the title role. Set at the dawn of Dee’s crimefighting career, it sees the young detective investigating a sea monster that has attacked the Imperial Fleet and uncovering yet another occult conspiracy with evil designs on the throne.
But the matter at hand is the third film, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, which is set after Rise of the Sea Dragon but before Mystery of the Phantom Flame (much like the James Bond movies, don’t hesitate to jump into Detective Dee with any instalment). For his work in the last film, Dee (Chao again) has won the praise of the Emperor (Chien Sheng), who presents him with what will become his signature weapon, the Dragon-Taming Mace, which can shatter any object. This angers scheming Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau again), who tasks a coterie of mercenary sorcerers with stealing the weapon.