Detective Dee and non-Hollywood franchises: If you're game for subtitles, it's a blast

Baradwaj Rangan

October 11, 2018 14:24:48 IST

On 27 July, this year, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings was released. It’s the third instalment in a supernaturally flavoured action franchise, which is a blockbuster everywhere except in the US. The first film (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2011) made under half-a-million dollars, according to Box Office Mojo. The sequel – a prequel, actually, named Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) – did not even touch $100,000, and the new one did a little over a quarter-of-a-million dollars. As a comparison, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, this year, made some $8.5 million on its first day. I picked Maze Runner over Solo: A Star Wars Story or Avengers: Infinity War, because it’s a relatively under-the-radar Hollywood franchise, and therefore comparable to the Detective Dee movies. Well, the Americans don’t know what they are missing.

Action films with subtitles rarely take off in the US market (and by extension, rarely make it to countries like India): the exceptions include the lush Zhang Yimou wuxia epics (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and, of course, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which, in a way, started it all. What made Lee’s film such a crossover success? Was it the fact that Lee was a familiar name, after his American dramas like Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm? Did it help that the stars weren’t exactly unknown either? (Michelle Yeoh was in the Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.) Or were there other factors? Maybe it was just that no one before Ang Lee bothered to pitch a wuxia movie to a Western audience, and the genre remained a local specialty.

Tom Breihan, in AV Club, examines this phenomenon in a piece titled America had never seen anything like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “A lot of the credit probably goes to the wave of Hong Kong action stars and directors who came to Hollywood in the late ’90s, changing the visual grammar of Hollywood movies. And it goes to Yuen Woo-Ping, who’d brought a similar sense of ecstatic unreality to the fights he choreographed in The Matrix a year earlier. It didn’t hurt, either, that Crouching Tiger wasn’t just a kung-fu movie; it was also a grand and lush romantic epic with as much in common with The English Patient as it had with, say, Iron Monkey.” The latter film, incidentally, is directed by Tsui Hark, who’s behind the Detective Dee movies. (You may have also heard of his Once Upon a Time in China series.)

The reason I bring up the American market is that it decides – through its critics, through the Oscars – what most of the English-speaking world consumes. A handful of hardcore cinema lovers may know of László Nemes’s Son of Saul as the winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes but most others know the film as the winner of the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. But never mind. If you like outrageous action, the Detective Dee films are a must. I haven't seen the new one, but the names of the older ones are disarmingly direct. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is about people bursting mysteriously into flames, as though set on fire by a phantom. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon is about quelling attacks by... a sea dragon.

The protagonist (played by Andy Lau in Phantom Flame, and by Mark Chao in Sea Dragon) is an upright detective, who learnt during a prison sentence (he was framed) that “truth must be fought for and justice must be demanded.” He’s just the kind of ally the Empress need in Phantom Flame, which opens with a Star Wars-like information dump. (Only the receding scroll format is missing.) “ln 689 AD, upon Emperor Tang Gaozhong’s death, Empress Wu, a regent for 7 years, would soon be coronated as history’s first female Emperor. Royal clansmen and founding officials resented a woman usurping the throne and colluded to overthrow her reign. Behind its peaceful facade the capital was lurking with danger. All hell was about to break loose...”

Hell does break loose in a series of action sequences, superbly choreographed by the legendary Hong Kong martial artist, Sammo Hung. Wooden logs shoot up like missiles from beneath a lake. A robot-like assassin appears to be a droid, until we see it’s being moved by strings held by puppeteer far above. It makes no sense according to any law of Physics, which is absolutely the point. Speaking of the "fake-looking" visual effects in these films, Jonah Jeng wrote in Fandor, "the digital aesthetic is part of its 'look' – digital age proponents have in recent years praised films that, rather than striving for 'realism' [or the verisimilitude to which Hollywood typically aspires], instead create worlds that look overtly and self-consciously virtual... In the Detective Dee films, the purpose of the CG aesthetic of the set pieces is not to make the action feel grounded but instead to make it feel magical."

No sequence illustrates this theory better than the stretch in Sea Dragon after the titular creature destroys a ship. Its occupants fall into the sea, as does a horse on board. But it swims upwards, its rider spurring it on underwater, and it clambers up a floating piece of the hull and gallops ahead, as the sea monster surfaces from behind... You feel like an awestruck child all over again. Another attraction for me with non-Hollywood genre films is that the subtitles often sound a little off (and wonderfully so), which creates another layer of artifice. One of my favourite lines from Phantom Flame goes thus: "Only my dragon taming mace is missing." How marvellous to be in a movie where a dragon taming mace is actually a thing. And this, from Sea Dragon: "To get rid of insect parasites, we don't have to use virgin male urine. There's an older remedy." And thank heavens for that.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 16:21 PM