A giant demon with eye-ball-filled pores fighting a colossal. King Kong-like ape ridden by a Buddhist monk. Spectacular battles with wuxia heroes using qinggong to float weightlessly around their opponents. Talking fish imparting wisdom during visions. No, these aren’t scenes from a Golden Age Hong Kong fantasy film. Rather, these moments are from Tsui Hark’s third addition to his Sherlock Holmesesque wuxia franchise, a series following an investigator, Detective Dee, striving to save the Tang dynasty and future Empress Wu Zetian from seemingly supernatural forces. In this second prequel, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, Tsui continues to hybridize the detective genre with fantastic elements lifted from Chinese mythology, religions, and folk beliefs. And although all the films problematize Dee’s skepticism of the supernatural, it is in The Four Heavenly Kings that Tsui most plainly celebrates these traditions.
The film picks up immediately from where the second film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), concluded, as Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Jian) rewards Dee (in both prequels played by Mark Chao) with an enchanted mace for defending the empire from invaders and a giant squid. Beyond the mace’s ability to detect weakness in other weapons, in the previous films it has been used as a symbol of the people’s power to check those that rule them. Wu (Carina Lau) resents the gift and summons a group of Taoist magicians (whose supernatural powers are all revealed to be illusions) to assist Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng), the head of the imperial justice department, in wresting the mace from Dee. While investigating a crime, the detective soon learns of the conspiracy and goes into hiding.
Meanwhile, the film reveals that an Indian group, the Wind Warriors, which supported a former emperor in reaching the throne, are also plotting to take Dee’s mace from him to overtake the empire and obtain revenge for their forgotten aid. The Wind Warriors have hypnotized Wu and are influencing her tyrannical behavior and they use illusions of magical creatures to manipulate the royal court and the general populace. For much of the film, Dee’s assistant, Zhong Shatuo (Kenny Lin), and his romantic interest, the assassin Water Moon (Ma Sichun), lead the effort to prevent the Wind Warriors from succeeding with their plans. Dee also calls upon the aid of Xuanzang (Gao Xian), the Buddhist monk whose actual pilgrimage to India inspired the novel Journey to the West, and his assistant, Yuan Ce (Ruan Jingtian), to safeguard the dynasty.
At times, attempting to follow the film’s perplexing plot can lead us to question whether or not we have grasped all of the connections between the schemes to obtain the mace from Dee. However, by the film’s conclusion, these links and the plot are more clearly understood (though no one would fault you for reading over a plot summary afterward). This confusion may partly be due to Tsui’s directing style and the tension between the genres that the director collides together here. The BBC’s recent Sherlock Holmes TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch was immensely popular in China and the Detective Dee films likely owe their existence to its success. However, the films’ attempts to mesh the English detective’s reason-based doubt of paranormal explanations for crimes in works where characters use supernatural skills to fight one another baffles us because of this unlikely combination.
Yet in The Four Heavenly Kings, this combination seems to honor traditional Chinese beliefs at a time when there is renewed controversy surrounding religious issues in China. Tsui has consistently displayed his obsession with matters of Chinese culture, history and identity in all of his films. He reimagines and reshapes Chinese myths (Green Snake ) and heroes (the Once Upon a Time in China series [1991-1994]) and gives them new life. Likewise, in The Four Heavenly Kings, when Dee turns to a Buddhist monk for help to protect the empire, in spite of much of the rest of the film’s suggestions that religion is often used to dupe unsuspecting believers and cause trouble, Tsui reaffirms the value of China’s religious traditions to its culture and history.
Though at times the film’s narrative may confound us it is certainly worth seeing with Tsui’s filmography in mind and being open to the meanings created by its contradictions.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is showing on November 10 and 13 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.