At his best, Hong Kong master Tsui Hark teaches us that good movies don’t have to make sense—provided they’re written, designed and choreographed with exceeding imagination and good cheer. How many other live-action filmmakers would depict a venerated spiritual adviser as a talking deer? And how many would then reveal said deer to be a martial arts expert? Detective Dee contained an idea of this caliber in nearly every scene—as the friend who joined me for my third viewing said, it seems unlikely that so much fun could exist in one movie.
As outlandish as Tsui’s imagination can be, he remains remarkably controlled as a visual artist. Rarely does he break the laws of physics without first establishing a precise sense of physical space. Compared to a spatially indifferent filmmaker like Michael Bay—whose impact derives from pummeling the viewer into stupefaction—Tsui always lets you feel like you’re breaking the rules with him. Escapist entertainment doesn’t get more enlightened than this.