Film: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame ***
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Andy Lau, Jialu Zhang
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Judge Dee, or plain Dee to his friends, is China's answer to Sherlock Holmes, and has been immortalized in both the East and West for decades in several novels and TV outings, though I have to admit, I don’t read that much and this is the first I've heard of him. As for veteran Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, now there is a name I’m familiar with, though not so much in the last decade or so it has to be said - does any of this bode well?
Most people had considered Hark's glory days of the Once Upon A Time in China series all but gone, though I am still a big fan of 2000’s Time and Tide, even if anything since then has been pretty much forgettable. Tsui teams up with screenwriter/producer Chen Kuo Fu (The Message, Double Vision) to bring the legendary detective to the big screen for the first time in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, not the catchiest of film titles I’m sure you’ll agree. Mixing fantasy, adventure and period styling, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame lights up the screen with raw enthusiasm and incinerates all that stands before it. Probably.
All round superstar Andy Lau plays the iconic detective, pulled out of imprisonment to solve a series of murders with the help of Li Bing Bing (The Message), Deng Chao (Equation of Love and Death), and Tony Leung Ka Fai. Carina Lau stars as the almighty Empress Wu, and the spectacular action sequences are choreographed by action legend Sammo Hung. Detective Dee is an old-school Hong Kong production through and through, not to mention one of Tsui's biggest box office hits to date.
Plot wise, it’s a heady mix of old and new. A series of mysterious deaths involving internal combustion threaten to derail the coronation of Empress Wu (Carina Lau). The only person that can solve the case is currently in jail, but it’s not long before he’s released to investigate the case with Wu’s loyal aide (Li Bing Bing). Mysterious assassins lurk in the shadows and all hell breaks loose as Detective Dee sets out to solve the case and save the empire, but not until he’s had a shave of course, we can’t have Andy Lau looking like a tramp now can we? Fat suits yes, homeless no.
Detective Dee takes a little time to find its feet and anyone new to Hong Kong filmmaking might find the occasional lack of coherence confusing. What they won’t find baffling however is the dazzling use of CGI throughout. The special effects aren’t up to current Hollywood standards of course, but then again, neither is the budget. Credit where credits due though, Tsui Hark and his team have created a beautiful period piece with exquisite locations and spellbinding imagery. It’s a sight to behold for the most part and the look and feel of the movie make for a surprisingly fresh night in. The action choreography is fast flowing and vibrant, it’s certainly not Sammo Hung’s best work, but it entertains in all the right ways. Besides, he’s not working with Donnie Yen here, even though Andy Lau more than holds his own against a variety of CGI assisted assassins and beasties.
Anyone accustomed to detective thrillers will probably find the outcome obvious, it’s really not that hard to figure out, but Tsui does throw in a few red herrings along the way, not to mention a talking deer that really doesn’t feel out of place at all. Upon reflection, it seems quite odd that the townsfolk are willing to believe in talking animals and flying detectives but not spontaneous combustion, but hey, that’s why they call it fantasy filmmaking, right? Suspension of disbelief is mandatory, besides, the frenetic pace barely lets up once Dee hits his groove and by that time you’ll be having too much fun to care.
Performances are strong, even though there is very little time for character development. Carina Lau is the standout as Empress Wu, but Andy Lau makes for an imposing figure and lets face it, sometimes charisma is really all you need to get by. He really doesn’t have enough time for anything else; such is the speed at which the movie unfolds.
There are plenty of holes but it’s nice to see Tsui Hark rediscovering some of his early style and verve. Detective Dee feels both traditional and modern at the same time, presenting us with a fresh spin on the detective genre. Hong Kong fantasy cinema has been missing something of late, welcome back Tsui Hark - it’s been a long time coming.