"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame", a film by Tsui Hark


Tsui Hark, one -time master of the golden age of Hong Kong Martial arts films is back! Detective Dee is a rollicking high fantasy glittering with baroque art direction, a stew of jaw dropping fight scenes, pulp detective trophies and outlandish wire -fu. Tsu was responsible for “Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain” “A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987), “Swordsman “(1990)  and the “Once Upon a Time in China” trilogy.

The handover of Hong Kong to China spelled the end of Honk Kong fantasy Wu Xia films. Directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam, Ronnie Yu and Tsui Hark went to the US, with greater or lesser success.( Tsui’s reputation took a dive.) Ang Lee’s  US-Mainland China co-pro “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) brought the form back to life.

Now Tsui’s throwing his hat back into the ring. The high-wrought fantasy is on the real life Di Renjie, a provincial judge who rose through the court of the ruthless Empress to become her chief Chancellor, ironically fighting rebellions of those who resented a woman ruler ( the crime for which the film’s hero was originally imprisoned.) Dutch diplomat and linguist Robert van Gulik translated the very first Detective Dee tale ” Di Gong An,” then went on to write a series of bestselling mysteries (15) based on the character.

In the year 689. AD. of the Tang Dynasty, a time before foot-binding when women’s lives were less restricted, China’s sole Empress Wu Zetian ( Carina Lau) awaits coronation. An immense Buddha, built for the occasion, undergoes inspection. Suddenly the builder, the architect and the foreman burst into flames. (Empress Wu Zetian was a historical figure, though I doubt she had a shape-shifting deer- counselor.)

Her trusted advisor, the same magical deer, suggests she bring China’s Sherlock Holmes, judge Di Renjie (Andy Lau) AKA Detective Dee back to court.  Judge Di, who opposed her reign was incarcerated for eight years for treason. Pardoned and back at court, Dee is charged to discover any conspiracies that threaten her coronation. Suspicious of her former critic, Wu Zetian assigns Shangguan Jing’er to spy on him. As in Tsui’s earlier films, story follows imaginative story and a surfeit of wacky characters adds texture to Dee’s Investigation. Witty fight scenes and sexual innuendos abound.

Renowned fight choreographer Sammo Hung created fighting styles and weapons that identify each character, and sequences use the characters’ strengths and weaknesses to further personalize the combat. Dee has a mace that can destroy metal weapons with it’s own tuning fork. Chen Kuo-fu (“The Message”) scripted.

Production design, by Sung Pong Choo, and art direction, by Chi Pang Terrance Chung, are lavish and exquisite. Working with his biggest budget to date ( $13 million), Tsui wows us with his opening sequence. The 66 yard tall Buddha statue towers over a virtual army of workman. Behind them is the glowing Imperial capital, rendered in vivid detail via miniatures and CG. The underground Phantom Bazaar is hair rising. Peter Kam’s score establishes tension out of the gate, gives gravitas to the court scenes and helps weave the surprisingly complex story , full of edgy liaisons, treachery and a series of grotesque back characters.

A steamy seduction scene between Dee and Wu’s handmaiden Shangguan Jing’er (the gorgeous Li Bingbing) becomes a wall-spinning dance as they dodge arrows shot through the walls. Shangguan Jing’er shifts between seductive spy to distaff Watson. Dee tracks down Dr. Donkey Wang, a bug eating herbalist with a vast catacomb underground lair who holds the key to the Fire Turtles. A flight from underground saw-enhanced gremlins morphs into an exotic puppetry, automaton sequence, and there’;  villain who splits into a triad of his bad self.

Dee fights off a herd of malignant Elk, yes, Elk. There’s a fantastic form of acupuncture that can change a person’s appearance ( the Ghost Doctor- a man with a thousand  faces!) Like the Indiana Jones films, this is a rollicking fight fantasy embellished with ornate supernatural or mythological touches.
Tsui’s ambition pays off. The mystery continues to unravel throughout a series of action scenes that never lose momentum. The finale fight in a toppling Buddha is worth the price of admission.

Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) gives his Tang Dynasty detective the concentration of a Noir hero ( and the script gives him a real mystery to solve). He’s a charming detective, almost groovy in a sort of “I Spy” way. I can’t wait to see what he does in the remake of  “What Women Want.”

Deng Chao is terrific as the hostile albino head of the Imperial Guard Pei Donglai, who becomes as sort of on again off again Watson, as his respect for Dee grows. Taking cameo roles, Richard Ng (“Dynamite Fighters”) plays pre face-lift Wang Lu and actor-director Teddy Robin Kwan (Shuang long hui ) plays the altered Wang Lu. Regal Carina Lau won Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards, one of the film’s six awards). Special effects were created by two Korean special effects teams under the supervision of Phil Jones. Cinematography by Chi Ying Chan and Chor Keung Chan and editing by Chi Wai Yau (adeptly navigating the plot rich narrative) round out the production package.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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