Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, released in 2010, kicked off Tsui Hark’s latest blockbuster franchise, now on its third installment; it would also be the last good film Tsui would make. Since Phantom Flame, Tsui has pursued increasingly large budgets and extravagant special effects, simultaneously foregoing common sense. Tsui has always been a subversive artist, developing strong political viewpoints while chasing blockbuster sensibilities, but his political edge has diminished, if not vanished, under the auspices of mainland China. Since the handover, Tsui has found success in the studio system as China’s answer to Michael Bay, churning out loud, obnoxious and toothless CGI-ridden spectacle, peaking—for better or worse—with the climax of his previous film, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back. The final action scene of Demons is so thunderingly nonsensical and convoluted and exhausting that it makes Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look like Citizen Kane.
Andy Lau, who played the titular Di Renjie in Phantom Flame, did not return for the following films; rather, the series turned to prequels, with Mark Chao stepping into the role for 2013’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon. This new installment, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, is a direct continuation, beginning at the moment Sea Dragon ends, with the Emperor granting Di (Chao, returning from Sea Dragon) custodianship of the Dragon Taming Mace, the most powerful of all legendary weapons of China. It’s a symbolic gesture that recognizes Di’s heroism and service, but introduces new problems; as The Four Heavenly Kings begins, a series of political maneuvers are underway to remove the Mace from Di’s possession. These maneuvers are orchestrated by Wu Zetian (Carina Lau, returning from both Sea Dragon and Phantom Flame), the Emperor’s favorite consort, who worries that Di may pose a threat to her political schemes.
The complex relationship and tension between Wu and Di is the heart of the Detective Dee franchise, and the coda of The Four Heavenly Kings links the series back up to the opening of the original Andy Lau installment, with Wu, poised to become the first Empress of China, summoning Di from political imprisonment to solve a series of bizarre murders, thus turning the franchise into a tidy trilogy.
Given the success of The Four Heavenly Kings at the Chinese box office—it eclipsed Phantom Flame’s total gross in its opening weekend—this series will undoubtedly see more entries. As it currently stands, the Detective Dee trilogy comprises Tsui’s three best films in the last decade, even if that doesn’t say much. Phantom Flame is good, if nowhere close to his old Hong Kong films in quality. And while I hesitate to say it’s good, I always had a soft spot for Sea Dragon, with its fluid, colorful visuals and creative 3D effects rendering the film more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything. It’s an easy and entertaining watch, breezy and goofy and fun.
The Four Heavenly Kings starts strong, and for a good forty minutes or so, looks like it might even surpass Phantom Flame as the best Detective Dee film and Tsui’s best film in years. As the plot gets underway, we are treated to a proper investigation sequence, at first seemingly unrelated to the larger story. This provides an opportunity to display Di Renjie’s famous detective skills, which have varied from film to film. Phantom Flame often felt like a random episode of CSI in its plotting, and Sea Dragon’s flamboyant style transformed it into something more like a Sherlock Holmes story by way of Guy Ritchie; with The Four Heavenly Kings, I was reminded more of Holmes by way of the popular BBC series, Sherlock.
Unfortunately, the film goes off the rails as Tsui overcomplicates the plot. The Four Heavenly Kings starts by introducing a colorful cast of unique and memorable supporting players, antagonists whose wild and fantastical skills lead to some impressive fight scenes. These characters texture the film with the same cartoon sensibilities evident in Sea Dragon. They work on behalf of Wu to steal the Mace from Di, and while Tsui is focused on this aspect of the story, the film is taut and engaging, boasting creative action beats and impressive camera work.
But the film suddenly introduces another threat, the mysterious Wind Warriors, who have political schemes of their own and attempt to overthrow the Tang Dynasty with powerful sorcery. This element introduces an excuse for Tsui to overindulge in the CGI excess that has marred his other recent films. Hilariously, the Wind Warriors are able to control minds, and their ability to induce mass hallucinations is the film’s idea of a rational explanation for the otherwise supernatural elements occupying the film’s latter half. There’s a bizarre disconnect between introducing supernatural elements and then saying none of it is real, and that the explanation for all of it is sorcery. But I suppose cartoon logic is consistent with the franchise’s silly Scooby-Doo shenanigans.
More problematic, the film’s introduction of mind control diminishes what made the franchise intriguing and successful in the first place. The relationship between Wu and Di loses its thematic complexity; indeed, Wu is almost entirely robbed of agency, as she is now just another pawn in a complicated chess match of mind control. Seeing the character, and subsequently Carina Lau, reduced to this is a severe mark against the trilogy and undermines what Tsui and Lau brought to the table with Phantom Flame and its portrayal of the Empress.
The film’s conclusion also sends mixed messages. On the one hand, a monk commanding the Wind Warriors to let go of hate and not let it rule their lives is a simple but potent message. If only indirectly, this could resonate with Western audiences, calling to mind campaigns of hate and intolerance, such as the Brexit movement and the Trump presidency, that have threatened the integrity of their democracies. But on the other hand, a monk commanding the Warriors to forget the past, specifically past injustices and traumas inflicted on them by the ruling Tang, sits blatantly and uncomfortably within the political context of China and its current oppression of minority populations and human rights abuses.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings offers glimpses of the skill and creativity that made Tsui Hark a popular and successful filmmaker, but ultimately serves as yet another reminder of how far removed his mainland work is from his Hong Kong days. This may, in fact, be the most sobering and troubling reminder yet. There is no denying the commercial success of these films, and indeed, Tsui’s relentless push to revolutionize China’s special effects industry and capacity for cinematic spectacle is a natural evolution of his lifelong artistic impulses. But where has his political voice gone? Where is the anger of Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, or the subversiveness of Peking Opera Blues? Hell, I’d settle for the Tsui Hark who at least displayed wariness over the handover while making Jean-Claude Van Damme films. Watching a filmmaker once cherished for his political and feminist works, who mined Chinese history, culture and cinema to challenge, celebrate and reinvent it—and reinvent the Hong Kong cinema industry along with it—settle so easily into the mainland Chinese studio system and a questionable, politically compromised mode of mass spectacle, is as perplexing as it is disappointing, above and beyond the entertainment quality of the work itself.
The Four Heavenly Kings is fine, I guess—and I’ve certainly never seen an oversized mystical gorilla do battle with a massive and ancient diety comprised of hundreds of giant eyeballs, for whatever that’s worth—but I could really use some of that old Tsui Hark back. Conversely, as he fails to surpass the profound senselessness of The Demons Strike Back, and indeed will probably never top it, he could maybe just stop?