In the seventh century, the Tang Dynasty ruled over this region of East Asia, though many thought the power behind the Emperor's throne was his wife, the Empress Wu (Carina Lau) who gave the orders from the Imperial capital. However, not everything is under her control as there are insurgents determined to bring her down and usurp her power, evidence for which emerges when part of the Chinese navy are sailing home and there is a disturbance in the sea ahead. Soon a massive wave is travelling towards them, and it becomes clear there is something very large approaching from beneath it, something which ends up smashing every ship around, leaving the fleet almost entirely destroyed...
That'll be the sea dragon then, and though Hong Kong and Chinese cinema did not feature as many giant monsters as, say, the Japanese, they were not an entirely alien concept. On the other hand, the monster popping up here really only made its presence felt at the beginning and the end, for the grand finale (or one of the grand finales) as much of the rest of it reintroduced a character who had been played by Andy Lau in an Asian box office bonanza from Tsui Hark. Here the role of Detective Dee was taken by a younger actor, the rising star Mark Chao, though it was really business as usual: Sherlock Holmes-style deductions, extravagant martial arts, and action sequences on a huge scale.
The plot this time around concentrated on Dee's arrival at the capital just in time to throw himself into the conspiracy to bring down the Empress. He does have a rival in that the lead lawman Detective Yuchi (Feng Shaofeng) understandably feels umbrage at this bloke riding into town and stealing his act, and so after Dee has saved the most admired courtesan in the city, Lady Yin (Angelababy), from kidnapping at a parade Yuchi promptly jails him as a possible criminal, suspicious that the sleuth knows too much when that's his talent. Dee is too much of a hero to bear grudges, and spends the rest of the movie helping out Yuchi, not always with a welcome, but they have to set aside their differences when Yin is threatened once more.
Apparently by both the insurgents and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, an actual lizard man who keeps trying to spirit her away, but he turns out to be poet Yuan (Kim Bum), who is labouring under a curse. Except Dee doesn't believe in such superstitions so seeks a rational explanation, which he finds when it turns out some ruddy dastards have been poisoning that most Chinese of drinks, the tea: parasites have been introduced to the city's cuppas which in an extreme example have had that monstrous effect on Yuan, but will be infecting everyone from the Emperor to his guards - can Dee find a cure? Actually he leaves that up to a lowly doctor he has befriended, Shatuo (Lin Gengxin), but one of Dee's talents is getting his allies to work together for the benefit of all.
Interestingly, the Empress and indeed the whole of the ruling class are not depicted as noble sorts with the best interests of the people at heart: for a start she wants the mystery solved within ten days or Yuchi will have his head cut off (!), and soon she has threatened Dee, apparently reasoning a fearful populace is a populace under her thumb. Not that her enemies are much better, rebels from an island who have been forced by all those battles to take matters into their own hands and try to dominate the region by force. If the mystery this time is a lot more straightforward and even more reliant on fantasy for its explanations than before in spite of its protagonist's adherence to scientific solutions then Tsui was not going to skimp on the spectacle as you were never more than ten to fifteen minutes away from a big, splashy setpiece (literally, when the action moves to the ocean). This did mean credibility-defying sights as a horse ridden underwater and the idea that parasites could change their host's species, but there was a breathless quality which was most diverting. Music by Kawai Kwenji.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.