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Detective Dee and
the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Detective Dee

(left to right) Deng Chao, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Andy Lau and Li Bingbing.

Chinese: 狄仁杰之通天帝國
Year: 2010  
Director: Tsui Hark
Producer: Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Peggy Lee
Writer: Chen Kuo-Fu, Chang Chia-Lu
Action: Sammo Hung Kam-Bo
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Li Bingbing, Deng Chao, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Teddy Robin, Yao Lu, Liu Jinshan
The Skinny: Tsui Hark returns and the audience should be grateful. A China-funded action-mystery-fantasy told in tasty Hong Kong style, Detective Dee is fast, fun and possibly forgettable, but it entertains like few Hong Kong films do nowadays. Tsui Hark, you are the man.
by Kozo:

Tsui Hark, arguably Hong Kong Cinema’s defining filmmaker of the eighties and nineties, pulls himself out of his recent coma to direct Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, an entertaining and enjoyable period film that’s probably the best 21st Century approximation of that Hong Kong Cinema feeling since, well, Tsui Hark was making movies back in the nineties. Since the advent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the period martial arts actioner has trended towards grand romance and opulent production design over cinematic fakery and good, old-fashioned fun. Detective Dee steps back from self-assumed significance for an unpretentious, fast-paced dose of vintage Tsui Hark madness. It’s a little more subdued than his crazier (read: everything from the eighties or nineties) work, but Detective Dee’s very existence is cause for gratitude.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is basically a murder mystery with wuxia trappings, and features the classic character of Di Renjie, a real-life Tang Dynasty official whose fictionalized adventures make him something of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Played here by Andy Lau, Detective Dee is a smart investigator whose righteousness and martial arts ability are tested when he's asked to investigate some deaths by spontaneous combustion. The two mysterious murders are supposedly related to some sacred religious amulets, which were moved by the victims not long before they suddenly burst into flames. The amulets are located in an outrageously gigantic Buddha statue built to commemorate the ascension of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), who will become the first female ruler of China. Theoretically, the deaths of these amulet movers could signal divine disapproval of the Empress via instant flame-on. Or the murders could be the doing of people pissed at the Empress, as the victims were her loyal supporters.

Enter Detective Dee, who'll serve his nation by finding the murderer — though there are a few nagging issues in play. Dee's skills are recommended to the Empress by the royal sorcerer Lu Li, who's currently in seclusion but speaks to the masses through a talking deer (!). However, before going all Columbo, Dee must be freed from prison, where he was sentenced by the Empress when he previously criticized her rise in power. To keep an eye on Dee, the Empress sends her top aide Dongguan Jing'Er (Li Bingbing), who attempts to seduce Dee before morosely shadowing him on his investigation. Also along for the ride is albino judicial officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), whose skepticism and ambition both help and hinder Dee. Other problems: interference from some of the Empress' subjects, who aren't so happy with her upcoming coronation, plus red tape from the Empress herself, who refuses to let Dee investigate royal sorcerer Lu Li. However, that seems to be where the evidence leads. Can Detective Dee struggle through to find the killer before he too becomes a human torch?

Detective Dee is framed like a mystery, but it really isn't much of one. The identity of the culprit is easy to figure out — one or two lines of dialogue in the first five minutes pretty much identify the bad guy — making the mystery less of a “who” than a “what” or “how?” That is: how is the bad guy making people spontaneously combust? What other conspiracies are going on besides the one to kill the Empress? What’s the deal with Detective Dee’s previous imprisonment for treason? And how is it that there’s a talking deer hanging around the palace and advising the Empress? Besides the political infighting, the battle here is between science and superstitious magic, with Detective Dee looking for practical methods to the madness – at least, practical methods according to fictional Chinese terms. That means people bounce off walls via flying kung-fu and use super-awesome acupuncture to change their faces, but nobody should be able to make others spontaneously combust. There’s a thin line there between suspension of disbelief and gaping plot holes, but Detective Dee manages to walk that line well. Does it convince? Probably not, but forgiveness for Tsui’s particular brand of cinema silliness is relatively easy.

How does Tsui Hark pull off this hallowed cinematic trick, i.e. getting audiences to buy into his fanciful, nearly nonsensical filmmaking? Simple: by making things fast, exciting and generally so inventive that one may not notice that he’s pulling the wool over your eyes. Tsui’s big accomplishment here isn’t his use of special effects or modern technology, but in his retro filmmaking style. The direction is classic Tsui Hark, with overlapping dialogue and fast pacing that melds action set pieces, offhand humor and abstruse exposition into a breathless rush. One fun moment involves Dee confronting Donglai while instructing a coroner to read an autopsy report loudly (when asked to read the report again, the coroner comically shifts to talking about Dee’s fictional death) so that Jing’Er can’t overhear from her hiding place the roof. The scene echoes the fast, entertaining screwball pace of Tsui's eighties classics, though the staging itself is totally unrealistic and only a couple notches above silly.

Detective Dee is resolutely fake, however. The film is an obvious production, in that it presents itself in a very mediated, pronounced and even over-the-top manner. Besides the wirework and fast, sometimes frenetic choreography by Sammo Hung, the film possesses sharp editing that recalls Tsui’s eighties work. Sound design is decidedly expressionistic, and cinematography and production design trend towards confined eighties excess. The underground, set-bound “Phantom Bazaar” is another obvious nod to Tsui’s fantasy roots, with six-armed musicians, grotesque cannibals and other freaks co-existing — as one character says, “It’s a spooky pandemonium!” Indeed it is, though one wonders how this place exists in a practical world where royal sorcerers and spontaneous combustion are supposed myths. But hey, that’s nitpicking, and if you want to do that, don’t watch this movie. Detective Dee is full of stuff that may give one pause, but it compensates so well that one may not think about it until some time after the film ends.

The strong cast is a big plus. Carina Lau is regal and commanding as Empress Wu, and Li Bingbing is convincingly conflicted as the strong woman who develops more than a passing affection for Detective Dee. The romance is ultimately set aside for action and pseudo-mystery, but Li Bingbing sells the could-be-perfunctory subplot exceptionally well. Both Deng Chao and Tony Leung Ka-Fai (as the big Buddha foreman and Dee's old friend) turn in fine support, and the film even features a fun supporting role for former Tsui Hark collaborator Teddy Robin. Andy Lau suffers slightly in the lead because his character doesn’t have much of an arc. There is no real discovery for Dee; he's the same person at the end of the film that he is at the beginning. However, through the course of the film, the audience gets to discover just what Dee is about. That is, why would he help a could-be corrupt ruler who threw him in the slammer for simply criticizing her? Most of the time, though, Detective Dee is all about iconic presence — and that may be enough. Lau cuts a fine figure as Dee, his mega-idol looks making Dee a charismatic hero, while Tsui Hark’s pacing limits Andy Lau's omnipresent posing and preening.

There is, however, one "made for China" moment, when Detective Dee spouts dialogue that is essentially not unlike Jet Li's at the end of Hero. Given all the attention that China co-productions receive for their concessionary tactics, one could read the fawning dialogue as sly politicking from Tsui Hark, who has never really criticized China for their notorious film censorship bureau. There’s credence to that thought, but the film can be enjoyed nevertheless. In the end, the moment feels like just another detail thrown into Tsui Hark's already stuffed movie piñata. Detective Dee is a pure Tsui Hark cinema creation, and he pretty much drags audiences in and asks them to either accept what he's offering or shake their head and move on. This filmmaking method hasn’t always worked (see All About Women for a labored try), but here it feels like a breath of (recycled) fresh air. Ultimately, Tsui presents Detective Dee as little more than an action adventure ride and he does an unfathomable, fine and fun job of it. Rejoice, for the Master has returned. (Kozo 2010)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Vicol Entertainment Ltd.
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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