Maybe we could use a Detective Dee or two in this bold new age of fake news and powerful ideologies. Tsui Hark at least finds another case for the famed Tang Dynasty detective though this time one which sees him at the centre of a conspiracy, a bug in the system which must be squashed in order to pave the way for someone else’s revolution. The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Dí Rénjié zhī Sìdàtiānwáng) of the title (no, sadly Andy Lau has not returned with a few of his friends in tow) refers to the four Buddhist deities which ought to tip us off to the kind of story this is as personal desires, of one sort or another, threaten to destabilise a state.
At the end of the previous film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) was “rewarded” with a place in the inspectorate and guardianship of the Dragon Taming Mace. However, scheming consort Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is not particularly happy about her husband’s grand gesture and still has her doubts about Dee. Claiming that she fears such a powerful weapon/symbol being in the hands of someone who may betray the crown, Wu instructs Dee’s Sworn Brother and head of the Justice department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to retrieve the Mace at any cost. Yuchi is reassured that Dee is not in danger and so agrees to work alongside Wu’s handpicked troop of “magical” crooks (who have actually been hired to take care of Dee to stop him messing up Wu’s grand plan). Needless to say all is not as it seems and Wu has fallen under the influence of nefarious forces who are merely using her lust for power as a convenient mechanism for facilitating their own agenda of revenge for a past era’s betrayal and oppression.
Dee’s methods are, more or less, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, granting him almost supernatural powers of foresight and observation though this time he is not occupied with one specific case so much as solving the mystery of the hidden insurrection within the Tang. The Mace may seem like a MacGuffin but its power is real and eventually holds the key to defeating the forces of chaos which threaten to bring down the state. Wu’s quartet of “Taoist” magical mercenaries are quickly exposed as expert wielders of tricks and trinkets rather than supernaturally charged avengers, but the state can’t help being captivated by the “magic” which finally puts paid to their ambition and is rocked by the power of the false images which continue to assault their senses.
Tellingly the big bad here is a foreign cult which makes extensive use of “hypnosis”, strange potions, and smokescreens in order to create the illusion of magic. Illusion, however, is as good as or perhaps better than the truth when it comes to political manipulation. The cult’s powers apparently aided the creation of the Tang state but once they were no longer needed, they found themselves cast out, tortured, and humiliated. Unsurprisingly they want their revenge and will settle for nothing less than the humiliating fall of the nation they helped to build.
Good old fashioned deduction and rationality are useless in the battle to free infected minds from the hypnotic power of fake news perfectly tailored to embrace one’s darker instincts. Wu, secretly or otherwise, lusts for power of her own and was easily manipulated by the promise of support in her campaign to seize the throne. Meanwhile, the leader of the Wind Warriors is infected with an intense desire for violence and killing to ease his deep seated rage over the misuse of his people. The answer is, of course, Buddhism. Life is too beautiful to be marred by hate while the act of forgiveness is the ultimate show of strength. Nevertheless, Tsui abandons Dee’s cool, analytical approach for a strangely spiritual final battle in which the fake news machines wielded by the Wind Warriors are pitted against the intense calm of a finely tuned mind (and the slightly moodier one of a giant white gorilla). Hell is full of suffering, Dee reminds the monk, enlightenment will have to wait. Perhaps “enlightenment” is merely another selfish desire won at the expense of blocking out the calls for help from those in need.
The Dragon Taming Mace is the ultimate symbol of justice, literally able to cut through the spell of illusion to expose the truth below. Wu had reason to fear it, even if she was not in the position to understand why. Dee is indeed a worthy guardian and unsullied soul, committed to the pursuit of compassionate justice wherever he goes even if he does so as a representative of the authority. Wu may have regained her senses, but that doesn’t mean she’s cured of the underlying causes of her possession as the large statue of Guan Yin which looks mysteriously like her seems to prove. Dee may have another mystery on his hands, but in any case his work is far from done in a land of intrigue and duplicity in which justice hangs by a slippery thread.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Find out where it’s playing near you via the official website.
Original trailer (English subtitles)