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Review: Fantastical martial arts rule in 'The Four Heavenly Kings'

Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2018 at 11:15 AM Central

by John Couture

When HBO's reign ends next year as Game of Thrones finishes its final season, one might wonder where the cable TV Goliath will set its sights next. There's no short list of contenders as HBO seemingly has plenty of plates spinning in the air, including Game of Thrones spinoffs, but allow me to offer a suggestion, Dynastic China.

In the most recent season of Westworld, HBO dipped its foot in this milieu, but there's so much potential to be had here. Sure, Shogun World is not the same as Dynastic China, but the mystique and fantasy of the Far East belie plenty of opportunity for the right storyteller.

After watching Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, I'm convinced more than ever that this right storyteller is indeed Tsui Hark. Tsui famously catapulted to prominence with his Once Upon a Time in China films and simultaneously introduced the world to Jet Li.

His latest series of films follows a young detective during the Tang dynasty, Dee, as he fights crime and corruption in 7th century China. While the films tend to tread heavily into the fantastical as is common in wuxia offerings, there is a compelling human element to the characters and story that I feel would translate well to American audiences on the grand tableau that is HBO.

For those of you that don't know, The Four Heavenly Kings follows Detective Dee Renjie as he is pitted against Empress Wu and her desire to rule all of China. Following the events of Rise of the Sea Dragon, Detective Dee is put in charge of the all-powerful Dragon-Taming Mace. Naturally, Empress Wu desires the Dragon-Taming Mace for herself and what follows is a beautiful tapestry of fantasy and action as the power struggles of Dynastic China come to a head.

I will be the first to admit that I'm as unqualified to review wuxia films as the next guy, but while I may not appreciate the subtleties of the genre, I can definitely recognize a powerful film when I see one. The Four Heavenly Kings is a film that continues a heroic journey (even if it is the middle film chronologically) between right and wrong.

I haven't seen the other two Detective Dee films, but after watching The Four Heavenly Kings, I am motivated to go back and catch up on the character. Tsui Hark is a master storyteller that is in complete control of his characters and their destinies. He expertly weaves action and fantasy with dramatic moments that elevate the film from simply just being another "kung fu" movie to something with a bit more gravitas.

Along the way, the audience is treated to visually stunning sequences that give life to dragons and present Dynastic China in a way that we have only dreamed about. I'm fairly certain that while there is a certain audience that is fluent in his work, this time period holds a certain mystique for many westerners.

Perhaps in the coming years, the dragons of Westeros will be replaced by the dragons of Ancient China. It is a heritage and history that is rich in stories and folklore that has been mostly untapped on this side of the pond. Given this, I believe that if a studio or content creator such as HBO were to give Tsui Hark the freedom and money, he could quite capably create a solid success that would start to bridge the gap between our two societies.

There is a certain level of mystery from this period and films such as The Four Heavenly Kings provide us with a brief glimpse of a different place and time. Whether it's through more films or a top-notch TV series, Dynastic China deserves a place in front of western viewers. For now though, The Four Heavenly Kings and the rest of the Detective Dee movies will satiate our increasing hunger for more.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.