I missed my chance to see the earlier Judge Dee movie, but I assumed that this and it were historical mysteries derived from the work of Robert van Gulik. Apparently there was a Dee during the Tang dynasty who was a judge and an imperial courtier. During the Ming dynasty, there were some folk novels about him, and this tradition fell into van Gulik's hands. His novels about this investigative judge were popular enough that others wrote further sequels after his death, and I assumed this was derived from one of those.
I was wrong. Although within the first few minutes, Mark Chao was on the scene of the crime as Dee making acute observations, it soon turned into a fantasy movie about magic maces, wicked empresses, court intrigue, evil Indian sorcerers and monks who are so good they'll let the world go to heck in a handbasket before they'll interrupt their quests for enlightenment.
Plus fiery demons and dragons and such, and it was at that point I began to wince. I enjoy a lot of fantasy movies, and many CGI special effects are well done, but there are film makers who seem convinced that if you render your impossible chimera in sufficient detail, the audience will accept it as real. There may indeed be audience members who feel that way, and they may be numerous enough to make a fine audience for the commercial art that is cinema. Alas for me, I am not part of that particular audience and if you show me something that doesn't exist and render it in sufficient detail to look real.... well, it starts to look cartoonish to me, like a Rube Goldberg alarm clock or what you get when you cross a hippopotamus with an abacus. "That's very nice, but why did you go to such trouble?" is my emotional reaction, as I tap my foot and wait impatiently for the fiery people to stop flying through the air so the movie can get on with it.
It seems a pity, because there are some lovely production values in this movie, in set design and costuming, camerawork and editing seem well covered and the actors hit their marks and seem to speak their lines well -- it's in Mandarin, so I have to rely on subtitles. There's also not a particle of doubt in my mind that if I had gone in knowing I was going to be looking at a fantasy instead of a mystery, I would not have been so disappointed.
Except by the continuing belief that spending lots of money on incredibly elaborate special effects can make up for foolish plotting. I'm sorry about that, but it can't.
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