As both producer and director — and, to a lesser extent, writer and actor — Tsui Hark has long been one of the most influential and proficient filmmakers in Hong Kong, directing “Peking Opera Blues,” the first three “Once Upon a Time in China” entries, “The Blade,” and maybe a dozen others and producing “A Better Tomorrow,” “The Killer,” “A Chinese Ghost Story,” and yet another dozen others — all within a little more than a decade. His pace slowed down when he made two English-language films with Jean-Claude Van Damme and never quite recovered.
His latest is a prequel to his 2010 hit, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Mark Chao takes over the lead role from bigger star (and better actor) Andy Lau. He must solve the mystery of a giant sea beast and track down the mastermind behind the kidnapping of high-ranking courtesan Rui Ji (Angelababy). Add in the mix a Caliban-like creature with a tragic back story akin to “Phantom of the Opera” and a fatal parasite that can only be driven out by drinking the urine of a male virgin, and you've got a boatload of plot.
Somehow the complex story is upstaged by almost nonstop action scenes and a richly artificial visual style. I was initially bewildered by the excess of swooping aerial shots, until I learned that the movie was designed for theatrical release in 3D. Tsui used 3D for his previous feature, the 2011 “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”; the use of 3D for a subtitled film, however, was literally painful for many viewers, which may be why the new film has gone straight to 2D home video without an American theatrical release.
Surprisingly, the constant barrage of intended-for-3D effects becomes the basis for the video's instantly striking style. The incongruity of superimposed memories and other composite effects with the 2D presentation becomes a virtue rather than a hindrance.
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Well Go USA, Blu-ray, $29.98; DVD, $24.98)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).