Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Visually stunning, breathtakingly inventive, so full of incident that it scarce bears summary, Detective Dee And The Phantom Flame is best compared to the movie serials of early cinema. There's always something new, some fresh peril, some ridiculous set-piece and some staggering revelation. Dee himself is based on a real character, Di Renjie, twice chancellor to the sole female Empress Regnant of China, but this is as much about history as Indiana Jones is about archeology.

The statue of the Towering Buddha is an important plot point, and it's a mighty construction. Described in the subtitles as being 66 'yards' tall, it's probably actually measured in 'bu' - a unit sometimes known as the Chinese pace that's nearly six feet. It's a bit of a surprise, repeated twice, and certainly inaccurate if only because six men can stand in each eye and gaze out from an integral balcony. Out, and down, upon the Imperial Palace, home to the Empress played by Carine Lau. Her right hand-maiden is played by Bingbing Li, but when people begin to spontaneously combust there's nobody to call but Detective Dee.

Copy picture

When the film was screened at Glasgow's 2011 Film Festival, Dee was described as being somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and Bruce Lee. That's true enough, but there's a touch of Obi Wan Kenobi, Inspector Clouseau, and Judge Dredd. Laconic, rigorous, scrupulous, ridiculous. He carries the Dragon Taming Mace, gifted him by the late Emperor, and when he spins the spinny-thingy that's on its haft it puts lightsabers to shame for sheer destruction. He powers through the investigation as a stalwart avatar of justice, and somewhere in the middle he gets into a fistfight with magical deer in a garden full of statues. Tonally, this is gonzo.

Lucas is a useful touchstone, if only because of the air of the matinee, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and the amazing production herein displayed. Sammo Hung provides the action sequences, there are model shots and good old fashioned matte painting and the costumes - oh, my, the costumes. Bruce Yu's work on this film is worth one of those coffee table books, running the gamut from rough hewn peasant and prisoner garb to artifacts of courtly clothing that signal as surely as the Death Star circling the forest moon of Endor that an Empire is in attendance. There's a duel between an iron rod and a meteor hammer, someone clatters about with shuriken that work like toy helicopters, there's a giant puppet that is possibly not a puppet - real Being John Malkovich scale stuff - at one point, after blind men have fought assassins beside a furnace and there's been a jaunt out to Infinity Monastery, there's a tiger. Shades of Gladiator, perhaps, or The Hangover, but then, no, there's just a tiger. That's the scale of the production, the scope, the splendour - Shere Khan as set dressing.

As Dee, Andy Lau is brilliant. He's relatively recognisable to Western audiences, with roles in Infernal Affairs and House Of Flying Daggers. As Pei Donglai, Dee's albino minder (then rival, then sidekick) Chao Deng is great. Indeed, all the performances are brilliant, but that can be credited to director Hark Tsui's hard work.

Peter Kam's score is lush, the production design by Sung Pong Choo, the art direction by Chi Pang Terrance Chung, the set design by Tak Fu Chou and the visual effects department all combine to produce an amazing sense of majesty, physicality, theatricality. Approaching two hours in length it does on occasion seem to wander, but with treats like the Phantom Market there's never time to become inattentive because there's always something else happening. It seems that Hark Tsui basically wanted to use this opportunity to do everything cool he could think of in a movie in one go, and to be honest it seems that he's succeeded.

Sammo Hung's fight direction is brilliant - there are so many fights in so many locations with such ridiculous abandon that it's pointless to try to list them. From the exploding chaplain to the arrow-riddled hotel to the aforementioned versus venison venture they all surprise, delight, astound.

The story is apparently based on the adventures of Judge Dee portrayed in Robert Van Gulik's detective novels and newspaper comics, and while there are potential anachronisms aplenty in them the film does a good job of straddling the narrow path between the supernatural and superstition. Admittedly, in a movie where there are talking magical deer and kung fu gives you powers akin to hanging from invisible wires, but let's call it a conceit of the genre.

There are so many things going on, so many crosses and double crosses and appeals to nobility and the forces of history that all of the things so far mentioned don't even begin to cover all of the stuff in the film. The only real concerns are that the subtitles aren't perfect, and (as with Jet Li's Hero) the suspicion that certain story aspects have been framed to appease the political authorities. It could, possibly, have done with a firmer hand at the editing stage, and the sheer variety of incident does obfuscate the plot a little, but, and this is important, this is the only film you will see this year that pits kung fu against antlers. When the rational, grounded part of a film is that people are catching fire while building a statue so big it has its own weather, there's nowhere to go but to see it.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2011
Share this with others on...
When spontaneous combustion claims the lives of several members of her court, an empress calls on the brilliant and inventive Detective Dee to solve the mystery.
Amazon link

Director: Hark Tsui

Writer: Kuo-fu Chen, Jialu Zhang

Starring: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Tony Leung Ka Fai

Year: 2010

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: China, Hong Kong

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Fall