I can’t comment on how the new Tsui Hark film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, plays with a Friday-night crowd; but in a near-empty multiplex at 10 AM on a Sunday, I found it to be great fun. Colorful, silly, and egregiously phony, it went down like a breakfast feast of Pop-Tarts, Fruity Pebbles, and about a half-dozen kinds of ice cream. It may not be as good as Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (but then, what is?)—the special effects are cruder here, and Mark Chao, in the title role, doesn’t hold a candle to Andy Lau. But Tsui’s will to entertain is as strong as ever, ditto the filmmaker’s relationship with his inner eight-year-old. Not since grade school have I laughed so hard at a piss-drinking joke. And, as in much of Tsui’s work, the frequent lapses in narrative logic feel less like the result of laziness than of an irrepressible enthusiasm. Like a child making up a story for his friends, Tsui will throw in all the best ideas that come to him, regardless of whether they fit. A parasite that turns people into monsters like the one from Creature From the Black Lagoon? A mad scientist with the arm of a gorilla? Why not!
When critics say a movie feels like it was written by grade-school children, they typically mean it pejoratively. But Tsui’s films (even the bad ones) embody the best of youthful imagination: the refusal to conform to adult logic, the liberty to pursue any train of thought at any moment. By contrast, junk like Alvin and the Chipmunks and its sequels (however intelligible they may be for children) are all too grown-up in their rigid linearity and reliance on storytelling formula. These movies are meant to placate children, not inspire them—and definitely not to validate whatever fantasizing they might pursue on their own.
Perhaps I was more inclined to have these thoughts by watching Young Detective Dee on a Sunday morning, the day and time I once devoted to gorging myself on TV cartoons. Having the theater nearly to myself may have been a contributing factor too—being there felt a bit like occupying the den before my parents woke up. In fact I spent the whole movie being careful not to disturb someone’s sleep; a young woman in the row behind me had put up several arm rests and turned about four chairs into a makeshift bed. She had a suitcase with her, and it was expensive-looking (it probably cost more than many of the green-screen effects in Young Detective Dee). I suspected she was killing a few hours before going back to Union Station. I hope I didn’t wake her up during the piss-drinking scene; but if I did, I hope she got to appreciate some of it before nodding off again.
Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.