Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)

Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.



NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty


Curse of the Golden Flower

Even corridors are filled with color and light.

Even corridors are filled with color and light.

(Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Qin Junjie, Li Man, Chen Jin. Directed by Zhang Yimou

It is a well-known Western aphorism that it is lonely at the top. It is also true, universally, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

During the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century, the Emperor (Fat) returns home with his son, Prince Jai (Chou) from war against the Mongols to celebrate the Chrysanthemum festival. However, all is not well at home. The Empress (Li) is very ill, despite regular doses of medicine. And, shockingly, she is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Ye), her husband’s son by his first marriage.

This is not just a dysfunctional family, it’s a homicidal one. The Empress isn’t just ill; she’s being poisoned with a rare Persian fungus which will eventually drive her insane. This is being done by the court doctor (Dahong) on the orders of the Emperor. It seems he is a mite ticked off at his wife.

In a move of self-preservation, she enlists the help of Jai to overthrow his father. He is at first reluctant, but when he sees the condition of his mother he is moved to vow that she will never drink the poison again. This sets the stage for an epic battle in the very hallways of the Imperial Palace, one of the most lavish and ostentatious ever known.

This is one of the most visually arresting movies ever, with bright colors dominating the sets and costumes. The palace is aglitter with Chinese art glass, crystal columns lit from inside in shades of red, gold, green and blue. Armies in gold armor clash with armies in obsidian. Assassins fly like wraiths through the air, throwing wicked curved swords to filet their victims. Pots of chrysanthemums fill a huge courtyard to the very steps of the palace. It is certainly a feast for the eyes.

It is also a soap opera on steroids. The story, taken from Thunderstorms, a 1933 play written by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, is full of juicy palace intrigue, forbidden love and terrible secrets. Chow Yun Fat, one of the most honored actors in Asia, plays the Emperor as a brutal man – not necessarily an evil one. His loyalty is to his throne, even ahead of his family. It’s a difficult role, but Fat handles it with grace.

Director Yimou is reunited with his longtime leading lady Li, who collaborated with him on such classic movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou.  She is beautiful and regal here, but is most often called upon to express revulsion and shake like a leaf at the effects of her poisoning. Pop star Chou is solid as the heroic Prince Jai, put into an impossible situation.

There is a good deal more CGI here than is usual with wuxu films but it adds to the epic scope and awesome majesty of the movie. The detail is extraordinary and one must pay tribute to the artisans who worked on the set and costumes, most of which are authentic. Sure, there is some quibbling with historical accuracy (for example, the armor worn by the competing armies in the final battle were not the sort that Chinese soldiers of the time would have worn for anything other than ceremonial purposes; also, the architecture of the palace was more suitable to the 15th century although the interior is more or less accurate) but that’s all right; you won’t want to see this as a history lesson. Indeed, this is one of the most stunning movies I’ve seen from a visual aspect ever; Cecil B. DeMille would have certainly approved.

WHY RENT THIS: Out of this world visuals make this a stunning feast for the eyes. Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li are two of the premiere actors in Asian cinema today and they show why that reputation has been earned here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The soap opera aspect is a bit over-the-top in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The battle scene is extremely violent, and there is some implied incest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Imperial Palace exterior is the largest set ever built in China. The battle scene set there took over twenty days to shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of documentary is particularly interesting in how the sets were constructed, the costumes made and the overall theme to the movie.


TOMORROW: Lymelife