Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
After a quiet spring and early summer, with few Chinese releases of note to play on American screens, things are starting to pick up as we head into the second half of the year. A couple of weeks ago saw the release of another Herman Yau film (The Leakers), his fifth feature in the past 14 months, along with Han Yan’s follow-up to his surprisingly effective cancer rom-com Go Away Mr. Tumor, the bizarre-looking manga adaptation Animal World. Both films quickly disappeared, playing not quite a full week here in Seattle, but this week’s big release should have a longer run. Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is the third in a series of fantasy-adventure films from Tsui Hark, who has been for 40 years the central figure in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. His recent Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back and The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (which he produced while Yuen Woo-ping directed) have been disappointing, unable to reconcile their reliance on special effects with an effective story or characters. Four Heavenly Kings is more coherent than Demons Strike Back, and better in just about every way than Dunjia, and its effects are as imaginative as anything in cinema today, really only rivaled by the Baahubali movies for audacity on a blockbuster scale. But while the action and effects are the best yet in the series, there’s something strange about it, a new twist on the films’ attitude towards power and the relationship between science and magic.
The first Detective Dee film, Mystery of the Phantom Flame, was released in 2010 and starred Andy Lau as the imprisoned detective who is released by the Empress in order to solve a crime involving spontaneous combustion and a giant statue. Carina Lau plays the Empress, Wu Zetian, one of the more fascinating rulers in all of recorded history, and the only woman to serve as ruler of China in her own right. She was a concubine of Emperor Taizong, founder of the Tang Dynasty and by consensus one of the two or three greatest Emperors in Chinese history. When he died, rather than go into seclusion, as was tradition, she instead married his son, the Emperor Gaozong.1 When Gaozong began suffering from various illnesses, Wu took charge, and when he died she became first Empress Dowager and Regent for her son, then simply took power herself. In all she was in power for nearly 50 years, basically for the whole last half of the 7th Century. Dee too is based on a real figure, an official from the Tang court who had a contentious relationship with the Empress. A series of 18th century detective stories loosely based on his life was discovered by a Dutch writer named Robert van Gulik in Tokyo after World War II. He published his own translation of them and went on to write a series of novels about the character. These are the inspiration for Tsui’s films.
At the time of Phantom Flame, Wu is about to declare herself Emperor some years after she had had Dee jailed for opposing her regency. He agrees to solve the crime, but remains suspicious of Wu and her motives. Carina Lau plays Wu as an unreadable figure: she’s vastly more clever than anyone around her (except Dee) but her motives are opaque: she might have the best interests of the Empire at heart, beset as she is by rivals who are far more venal and deadly, or she may simply be a tyrant with an unquenchable list for control. Wu has traditionally been a vilified figure in Chinese history, dating back to her own time, but it’s difficult to separate the stories of her evil deeds from propaganda inspired by resentments on the part of her rivals and/or officials she had stripped of power. Coloring it all is the rich and overwhelming tradition of outright misogyny on the part of Chinese officialdom, as well as various religious hatreds (Wu made Buddhism the state religion, as opposed to Taoism, a culmination of a long-term trend in the Tang Dynasty—it was Taizong who sent the monk Xuanzang on his Journey to the West to receive Buddhist scriptures). Tsui plays it both ways, blurring the line between endorsing authoritarianism and opposing it so that the film would avoid objections from Mainland censors while maintaining somewhat true to Tsui’s lifelong anti-authoritarian beliefs. Dee reconciles himself to the idea of Wu as supreme ruler, for the sake of national unity, but nonetheless admonishes her to rule justly, an attitude not entirely dissimilar to that espoused by Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
2013’s Rise of the Sea Dragon then takes place 25 years earlier, with Dee’s first arrival in the capital, Luoyang. Now played by Mark Chao, Dee is young and brilliant but not nearly as charming (not having Andy Lau in a role necessarily makes the character less charismatic, but Chao, while a solid presence, is really lacking in any kind of flair). The case this time involves a small island nation and its war against the Tang, involving a giant sea creature and a plan to turn the entire Imperial court into fish monsters. The plan involves parasites which are served to the court in their tea. Dee solves the mystery and with the help of a crazy, ape-armed (literally) doctor, comes up with a cure: eunuch urine. If Phantom Flame is Tsui’s act of conciliation with Mainland power, then Sea Dragon is his small act of rebellion: Dee will accommodate himself to tyranny, but he’ll make sure they have to drink piss first.
Four Heavenly Kings, however, doesn’t seem to have an opinion on power, or Empress Wu’s wielding of it, at all. Following the conclusion of Sea Dragon, in which the Emperor bestows upon Dee the Dragon-Taming Mace (a rod made of some kind of outer space metal which, when a small wheel on it is spun, can shatter any Earth object), the Empress immediately begins scheming to steal the mace, for some vague purpose. Wu enlists Dee’s fellow detective Yuchi, again played by William Feng Shaofeng (who played the Tang monk Xuanzang in Soi Cheang’s Monkey King films), to lead a gang of magicians to steal the mace and she also commands them (without Yuichi’s knowledge) to assassinate Dee. Aiding Dee is his friend, a medical student named Shatuo (Lin Gengxin, reprising his role, he also played the Monkey King in Demons Strike Back). The first half of the film involves the magic gang trying and failing to capture Dee, who eventually goes into hiding. For long stretches of the film, in fact, Dee is nowhere to be seen, with Yuchi and Shatuo taking center stage for complicated magical and palace intrigue (Yuchi) and bumbling starry-eyed romance (Shatuo and one of the assassins, played by Soulmate star Ma Sichun, who gets about as much to do as the ingenues in the previous Detective Dee films—Li Bingbing and Angelababy—that is to say, almost nothing). Fortunately, the effects in these sequences are pretty spectacular, and in a very real sense this half of the film is basically the one or two good scenes in Dunjia spread over an hour of running time.
Eventually, though, as it becomes clear that the magic assassins aren’t, in fact, magic, and the real threat reveals itself: a gang of barbarian mystics called the Wind Warriors who have returned to exact revenge upon the Tang. It seems they had aided Taizong in building the Empire, but he had not rewarded them for their service, instead exiling and tattooing them (or something). In fact, the whole Journey to the West was actually for the purpose of finding a Sanskrit sutra which could counteract their magic. Of course, they don’t really have magical powers either, they’re just really good at hypnosis, which might simply be an accommodation to Chinese censorship (which doesn’t look kindly upon the supernatural), but it might also be key to what the whole film is all about. Either way, the result is, like Demons Strike Back, a bit of a thematic muddle. It seems that everyone bad, up to and including Empress Wu herself, is under the influence of these hypnotic killers, and that’s why she’s acting like such an evil tyrant. Dee, rather than simply solve the crime with scientific rationality, as any good Detective does, calls Xuanzang himself to help, in the form of his disciple, Yuan Ce, who when he isn’t meditating inside a tree or talking in the form of a giant fish, manifests himself as a giant white gorilla.
The film seems to be setting up an argument for mysticism against science, which would run counter to the message of the first two Detective Dee films. All the apparent magic in Heavenly Kings is revealed to be various tricks, the work of machines or drugs or hypnosis. But then the finale involves a mystical showdown between two opposing magical powers (gorilla versus giant, recalling the spectacular finale of Demons Strike Back). In both of the first two Detective Dee films, the villains use parasites to afflict their enemies. In Phantom Flame a kind of beetle burrows into people and then bursts into flame when they are exposed to the sun, consuming themselves and their host. In Sea Dragon, parasites turn people into fish monsters. There aren’t any literal parasites in Heavenly Kings, but there are ideas and beliefs. The villains take control of people’s minds with ideas, amplifying what’s there into something literally unbelievable: a wooden dragon’s head being dragged around is seen as a flying CGI creature, for example, or a cavalry charge is met not by arrows but the tentacles of some ungodly ball of worms, or an angry priest is seen as a golden giant covered head-to-toe with eyeballs. It’s these ideas that take hold of people, that are the used to manipulate their behavior. Empress Wu isn’t just acting under hypnosis: she’s been infected by the idea of absolute power. To combat this, Dee enlists an even more powerful idea, but it isn’t easy. The monk Yuan Ce is in seclusion, seeking enlightenment, but Dee, or Xuanzang speaking through Dee, repeats the phrase “Hell is full of suffering souls, so enlightenment must wait.” Infected with this admonition to go into the world and help the people, he comes to save the day. And he does it, in turn, with his own ideal of forgiveness, which in turn infects the villains.
We’ve gone from a materialist world where every seemingly supernatural effect is the result of some practical action, to one where every aspect of (perceived) reality is fungible, the result of intangible beliefs and ideas which can spread like a virus from person to person. Where anything can seem real but the only really real things are ideas, which are completely ephemeral. In a world where the senses can’t be trusted, where anything is possible and therefore the reality of anything must be doubted, how does a person act? How can a person act? Four Heavenly Kings is the most ephemeral, the most abstract of the Detective Dee films, which appear to be playing out as a series structured by elemental oppositions: if the first two are Fire and Water, then this one seems to be the first half of an Air and Earth pairing. I suspect that if we get a fourth film, it will answer these questions, setting us back on firmly materialist ground, giving us a space for right action. Detective Dee’s Dragon-Taming Mace can shatter any physical object, but it’s coveted by the Wind Warriors because it can also shatter illusions. Yet it stands for an ideal of justice which even the Empress must take seriously. At the end of Phantom Flame, Dee agrees to stand down in his opposition to her rule if she swears by the mace to act rightly. She does, and an on-screen title informs us that after 15 years of absolute power she willingly ceded power to her son. But at the end of Heavenly Kings, she’s still under the influence of the lust for power.