Movie star Mark Chao. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Known for decades as the master of the visual feast, maverick director Tsui Hark is returning to our screens with his take on 7th-century China as the backdrop for his latest Detective Dee epic.
As the third installment of the franchise about the titular sleuth, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings hit Chinese theaters last Friday.
Something akin to the Chinese version of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the role of Dee has been reprised by Taiwan actor Mark Chao, who faces off unprecedentedly powerful rivals in the new extravaganza.
Picking up from where Rise of the Sea Dragon left off, Tang emperor Li Zhi presents Dee with the dragon-taming mace, a token of supreme supervisory power that gives its owner the power to fend off anyone who covets the throne.
Regarding the gift as a threat to her ambitions to become the country’s top ruler, the emperor’s wife, Wu Zetian, assigns her top aide and a team of five sorcerers to steal the mace. But what instead unfolds is an even more thrilling conspiracy about an exiled rebel force from India which is plotting to take over the Tang empire. Wu is again played by award-winning actress Carina Lau.
The major characters are loosely based on real historical figures. Wu was China’s first and only empress who reigned around 1,300 years ago, and Dee was a well-known politician revered by the empress.
But being faithful to history has never been a goal for Hark, who is famous for reshaping Chinese martial arts films since the late 1970s through his use of fantasy scenes set in ancient China.
From his directorial debut The Butterfly Murders to Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the first Chinese Imax 3D movie, up to his recent blockbuster Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, Hark has established his status as an iconic figure behind the rise of lavish homegrown special-effects-driven films－a sector that Chinese filmmakers have long hoped to shrink the gap with the world’s top movie player, Hollywood.
"As a filmmaker, I always hope to bring something new to the audience," says Hark, during a recent interview.
Speaking about his formula to entertain and excite the audience with the 8-year-old Detective Dee franchise, Hark says he has tried to seek inspiration from some yet-to-be-explained mysteries from ancient times.
In the movie, the masters of the exiled rebel force have a host of magic tricks at their disposal to create complex illusions, such as making victims believe they are seeing a sculpture of a dragon come alive or being besieged by giant monsters.
"People might wonder what would happen if the monsters from the Godzilla or Jurassic films could coexist with us in our world," Hark says of his inspiration behind the monsters and supernatural creatures in his movie.
Aside from the protagonists, the cast also includes Feng Shaofeng starring as empress Wu’s top aide, Lin Gengxin playing a doctor, Ma Sichun as a swordswoman, while the tale’s mysterious hero is a Buddhist monk played by Taiwan actor Ethan Juan－who summons a gargantuan white-haired gorilla to ultimately solve the crisis.