Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Review)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

aka Di Renjie

Directed by Tsui Hark

What they say: This is Tsui Hark’s best film in years, it’s one of the best films of 2010, Tsui Hark, Tsui Hark, Tsui Hark!

What you really need to know: Andy Lau gets into a kung fu fight with CGI deer.

Do you like yo-yos? Yo-yos go up and down, and so does Detective Dee. Some sequences in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame are awesome, but other parts of the film are embarrassing and make you wonder why people were lavishing praise upon it.

If you’ve read any book on Hong Kong cinema that came out in the 90’s (which is when most of the books started appearing in the US), then you remember every single one had chapters on Tsui Hark. Tsui Hark was one of the Hong Kong New Wave directors that shook the industry to the core, and helped modernize Hong Kong film. Many of his earlier films are classics, though he had a few misfires. But even as the industry changed, Tsui Hark has seemed incapable of making film that is watchable since the mid-90’s. Those Jean-Claude Van Damme films were terrible, the Zu Warriors redux was boredom, and Seven Swords is a film so long that no one has ever gotten to the end of it. Despite all the technological achievements, Tsui Hark just wasn’t making good films anymore, and no amount of technology can change that. While Detective Dee isn’t a great film, it is at least the most watchable Tsui film since Black Mask, and something you should eventually get around to watching. You know, when it’s raining outside or something.

With Tsui Hark in the director’s chair, we are at least assured the film will look good, and it does. The cinematography is top notch. Elaborate CGI effects are needed to create ancient Chinese cities, palaces, giant Buddha statues, and underground meeting places – some are more believable than others, but you always know you are looking at a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in picture form. We do give props to action director Sammo Hung, as the actions sequences are the best parts of the film.

The stylized elements Tsui loves sometimes help the film, and sometimes hurt. As the opening scrawl is stylized to appear and disappear in wisps of smoke (which is nice), but a problem is the crawl is Star Warsian in length. In fact, the long text openings of Reefer Madness and Alone in the Dark are brought to mind. We are forced to read like half a sentence at a time, and have to wait for each piece one by one. It is what I like to call “annoying”.

Detective Dee (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) – Detective Dee is based on the real Di Renjie, who is a famous official during the Tang Dynasty. There have been countless books and references to Di Renjie over the years in both the East and the West. You should probably look them up if you want more information, this is only a small character box. Andy Lau is in every movie ever made! Just click on the Andy Lau tag to see all we’ve done…
Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau Ka-Ling) – Empress Wu Zetian is another real historical person, China’s only Empress and legendary for her ruthlessness. Though supposedly Di Renjie helped calm her down some. Carina Lau is also a real historical person, being an actress who has been in the industry for over 25 years and is married to the Tony Leung who is not in this movie.
Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bing-Bing) – Shangguan Jing’er is a made-up version of Shangguan Wan’er, famous female poet. As events transpire you can see why they went with a fictitious person for this character to keep with the stunning historical accuracy of the rest of the film. Li Bing-Bing was here before with white hair in The Forbidden Kingdom.
Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) – It’s an albino who isn’t a depraved mutant torturer! Although he does threaten people with torture… Pei Donglai is an investigator in the case who assists Detective Dee and whose own boss has burst into flames. Deng Chao is primarily a television drama actor.
Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) – A former buddy of Detective Dee who now works in building the giant Buddha statue. This is the Tony Leung who was in 1992’s The Lover, not the one who was in Lust, Caution. Keep them straight!
Donkey Wang (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon) – A famous doctor hiding in the Phantom Bazaar, probably to escape taunting schoolkids over having the name “Donkey Wang”! Please don’t reveal the shocking secret of Donkey Wang. It’s good to see Richard Ng working again, as he is at the point in his career when he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to and can live in semi-retirement. I am a big fan of his through much of his earlier work through the 80’s and 90’s, including when he pops up in Future Cops.

Things get hot in Ancient China when people start bursting into flames for no reason. A mass instance of spontaneous combustion? Or MUUUUURDER? Of course it’s murder, this movie would be boring otherwise! So let’s get Detective Dee’s butt out of jail and have him solve this thing!

We got a giant freaking Buddha statue being build for the coronation of Empress Wu. We know from the second we see this Buddha it is going to come crashing down. It’s like Chekhov’s Buddha.

Detective Dee has to fight off assassins before he’s even released from prison. Sent to go get him is the Empress’s most trusted aide, Shangguan Wan’er, who isn’t afraid to run into danger striking a whip or holding a sword. In a neat touch, she shoves a guy out of the way who is trying to protect her. People keep trying to kill Dee, Wan’er, Pei, and the Empress for the rest of the film. And yes, they do manage to succeed on some of them.

The Phantom Bazaar sequence, including the battle that takes place there, is the highlight of the film. As much of this is action, we can give the feel and moves of the action to Sammo Hung, but give Tsui Hark the credit for making it look good. But to the film’s detriment, the show goes on far after this sequence, and everything afterward is disappointment. The aforementioned CGI deer, a fight in the giant Buddha statue that includes a Hulkian opponent who roars instead of talks, and deadly poison that seems to work slowly and by different rules once a main character is infected with it.

In addition, the main villain was guessed fairly early in the film, and some of the other “twists” are also so telegraphed ahead of time I briefly thought I was psychic and opened up my own Psychic Reader business. I’ve made $80K since I opened. Thanks, Detective Dee!

Another odd note about the ending is we get the weirdo loyalty and fealty to horrible tyrant rulers that is sadly common among Chinese blockbusters (Hero, I am looking at you!), which is historically accurate in spirit, though I doubt the Empress changed overnight after one conversation. It probably took three whole conversations!

By the end, Detective Dee came off as exceedingly average. And I don’t grade on a curve, so that isn’t good enough. Tsui Hark will have to stay after class and explain himself once again. Preferably without talking CGI deer.

Rated 6/10 (Flame on!, eye spy, Detective Dee vs Mega Shark, the young empress, when a Buddha falls in the forest, Call me when Detective Eee gets here)

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