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Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010,China)

09/10/2011

Director: Tsui Hark     Starring: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng, Carina Lau

Di Renjie is something of a Chinese folk hero. A Judge and later Prefect in late seventh Century China he would later be written about more than a thousand years later, in a Chinese work of detective fiction. This would go on to be translated in the 1940s by Robert Van Gulik who would himself go on to write a series of detective novels with Judge Dee as his hero. Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame is Hong Kong cinema legend Tsui Hark’s spectacular, martial arts toting take on the character.

At around 690CE the Dowager Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is awaiting her coronation as the first female Emperor of China. The problem is, a series of spontaneous combustions, leaving several of her officials little more than a handful of ashes threatens to interfere with her plans to be installed as the supreme ruler of the kingdom. She sends for Detective Dee (Andy Lau) who is currently residing in a maximum security prison for his part in a revolt eight years previously. Basically the Far Eastern equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, Dee immediately sets about following the clues with a little help from the Empress’ right hand woman Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li) and white haired lawman Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) but even the legendary Dee, despite his powers of perception, is surprised by the plot he uncovers.

This film, like so many kung fu movies, is hung loosely on a genuine historical framework. What Hark has done here though is to really push the fantasy element of the story. Dee’s seventh Century China is full of mysticism and unfathomable powers, unusual realms and spectacular constructions. While Empress Wu and Detective Dee have their basis in real people the interposing millenium and a half have allowed artistic licence to run rampant. Giant Buddha statues tower over the Imperial palace, alchemists lurk in hidden, underground cities. Dee himself is possessed of supernatural kung fu skills. Casting realism aside, Hark has taken the historical basis and used it as a foundation for a vibrant, fantasy world.

Now, as a rule, I prefer my kung fu movies to be a little more grounded in reality than this but I have to confess I really enjoyed Detective Dee. As a character he is essentially Sherlock Holmes. Ultra perceptive, analytical, observant of every detail and able to process all of this information into accurate conclusions Hark’s main alteration to the established legend was to add in formidable martial skill to the mix. Andy Lau is, as always, superb on screen, portraying Dee as quiet and contemplative whilst delivering goods in the countless, Sammo Hung orchestrated, action sequences. For those who are opposed to wire work you are going to seriously struggle with the fight scenes as many of them occur in three dimensions, particularly when things kick off within the skyscraping Buddha statue, the emphasis on the fight scenes being on full blown wu-shu spectacle rather than gritty realism.

I can’t help but wonder if Hark’s decision to make this film wasn’t in part influenced by seeing Robert Downey Jr in the role of Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s suprisingly watchable 2009 film (a film in which Mr. Holmes deploys some Wing Chun moves in his numerous fights) as there are similarities in terms of feel and scale to that film here. They also have their use of CGI as a tool to recreate their period settings in common. This has the unfortunate side effect of making some of the wide shots of the city seem a little bit too clean and clinical but considering the scale of some of the shots there really wouldn’t have been that many options open to the filmmakers and so I can let them off. It’s pretty clear where the budget has been focused on this production and it feels as though the right decisions have been made in this regard. Most importantly the CGI work is relevant to the telling of the story, you don’t ever get a sense that they’ve used it to achieve effects for the sake of it.

The whodunnit plot structure works pretty well. The film kept me guessing until it wanted me to figure out who was responsible, a conclusion you reach moments before Detective Dee leaving you with that sense of having beaten him to it even though you know, deep down, that was what the filmmakers were striving for. I really appreciate this in a film because I really hate it when you twig to the ending after the first act and spend the rest of the film more interested in seeing your theory borne out than actually enjoying the film. I don’t think there are any gaping plot holes, certainly if they are there the pacing and action in the film are sufficiently distracting that I didn’t notice them.

It would of course be impossible for me to talk about a Cine Asia release without heaping praise (again) on the way in which they treat their releases. The stunning blu ray transfer is a joy to behold, especially given the bold colour pallette and often quite dark scenes which benefit from the extra detail afforded by HD. There’s the usual array of features but to be honest it’s all about the attention paid to the transfer for me and this meets the same high standards on display in the rest of their range of contemporary kung fu movies.

It’s not the most realistic kung fu movie you will ever see, in fact it’s probably among the more fantastical but Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame is one hell of a lot of fun, all of which is delivered with a cheeky wink and, therefore, is highly recommended.

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