Detective Dee: Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

cast: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Deng Chao, Tony Leung, and Carina Lau

director: Tsui Hark

119 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine Asia DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Detective Dee: Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

There really aren’t enough films featuring martial arts, gigantic Buddha statues, spontaneous human combustion, acupuncture-based plastic surgery, and magical talking deer. It’s 689 AD, and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) rules China. Her rise to power has been unpopular with traditionalists who are unhappy at the idea of a woman being in charge. Now though, her coronation is at hand. She will be China’s first (and, historically, only) Empress. To celebrate the coronation she is having a vast Buddha constructed in front of the palace. It is hundreds of feet high, a skyscraper of a statue.

While showing a foreign dignitary around the inside of the statue, the official in charge of the works jokes that if it is not finished on time his life will be forfeit. He doesn’t have to worry though, because in front of his guest and the horrified workers he spontaneously combusts. Soon after, another official bursts into flames, in front of the soon-to-be Empress herself as she carries out a troop inspection.

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The statue’s architect, a former dissident named Shatuo (Tony Leung) claims it is because heaven is angry with the officials who each moved certain sacred amulets. The Empress suspects more worldly opposition.

Meanwhile, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is languishing in prison. He opposed the Empress’ ascension, and now spends his days doing hard labour manning a prison incinerator. The Empress has no love for Dee, but advice channelled to her through what the court believe to be a magical talking deer tells her that only he can solve this most peculiar of mysteries.

I won’t say much more about the plot. Dee teams up with a bodyguard (and spy) the Empress assigns to him, the beautiful Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li), and with albino court officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao). All three are expert martial artists (naturally) and they need to be as they face vast numbers of assassins, flying logs, tripwire traps, buzz-saw equipped puppet-robots, hallucinogenic powders, poison, killer deer and all manner of other bizarre and frankly rather wonderful opponents.

It’s huge fun. The cast are excellent. Lau makes a great Dee. Bingbing Li works well as a combination of romantic interest and potential enemy. Deng Chao is suitably menacing even if he is technically a good guy (and I loved how he even uses his wire-fu just to get on and off his horse). The Empress is cruel, the dissident architect resentful, veteran actor Richard Ng even pops up as a court doctor hiding within a vast underground city. What’s not to love?

The CGI is tremendously well done. The vast statue, the palace, and the various other grandiose locations are all suitably impressive. The robots and deer and so on all look convincing. Real care has been taken here to integrate the live and the computer generated and it’s an absolute visual delight.

Similarly, the wire work is top notch. Sammo Hung is fight choreographer here, and it shows. There are too many set pieces to list (it’s a two-hour movie and a solid chunk of that is taken up battling a series of inventive foes), but it’s fair to say that each of the three main characters gets to show what they can do, and I enjoyed every fight scene.

Plot-wise, it sort of makes sense, but it is absolutely ludicrous. Still, who cares? This isn’t an historical biopic, it’s Tsui Hark back on form, making a film that takes itself utterly seriously and is all the better for doing so. This is grand stuff that will look great if you have a widescreen HD TV and still looked great on the ordinary low-definition TV I watched it on. It’s cinema as spectacle, and it is spectacular.

So, with all of that, why only eight score and not a 10..? Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame is a little longer than it needs to be. The story is, at times, just a little too stuffed with incident. There isn’t any real depth to the characters and, once it’s done, it’s not a film you’ll reflect on and find new nuances in (it’s not a nuance heavy movie). It is what it is – fun big budget Hong Kong action cinema. It’s not art-house and it doesn’t aim to be. It’s epic, it barely stands still and it has a battle with attack-deer. I loved it.

Detective Dee comes with a decent selection of special features on a second disc. These include a dozen (each fairly short, around the two-minute mark) cast and crew interviews, a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, a 20-minute promo for Cine Asia, the trailers, a poster art gallery and, best of all (on the main disc), a commentary track by noted Hong Kong movie critic and film historian Bey Logan, in which he once again displays his real knowledge and enthusiasm both for Hong Kong cinema and for the work of Tsui Hark.