CAPSULE: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Tsui Hark

FEATURING: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng

PLOT: When court officials begin spontaneously bursting into flames as her coronation

Still from Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

approaches, Empress Wu suspects a conspiracy and hires the one man she believes can uncover it: Detective Dee, whom she imprisoned years ago for treason.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are some strange fantasy elements (an talking deer courtier called “the Chaplain”) existing alongside historical material (Empress Wu and Dee himself are real figures), when you get right down to it, Detective Dee is probably only as weird to Western eyes as Indiana Jones was to Asian eyes.

COMMENTS Detective Dee does just about everything above average, and it does one thing really well: art direction.  From the skyscraper-sized Buddha being built for the Empress’ coronation to the flooded underground city where lowlifes go to hide when the heat is on to the everyday pageantry of the Chinese imperial court, Dee is a fantastic looking film, and it’s always a pleasure to watch the film’s ass-kicking characters cavort across these carefully rendered backdrops.  The fight sequences (orchestrated by cult choreographer Sammo Hung) are typically spectacular—the scene where Dee kicks a leaping stag in the head as he flies by is amazing—but they sometimes lack spontaneity and soul, feeling over-studied and over-crafted.  (I admit to a prejudice here: I miss the balletic martial artistry of the old Shaw Brothers films that relied solely on the performers’ athleticism.  But I accept that wire fu is here to stay).  The abundant CGI effects are of acceptable quality, a few years and a few million dollars behind contemporary Hollywood standards; fortunately, they are mainly used for artistic rather than realistic effect.  The only place where Dee drops the ball a bit is in the plot.  Continuity and clarity are not qualities one expects to see highlighted in Hong Kong fantasies, but considering that this one is explicitly couched as a “mystery,” the audience might have expected a little more misdirection and revelation.  Instead, clues pop up arbitrarily, sending our detective to yet another exotic locale where enemy agents await him in ambush.  And with the introduction of various rebel factions and their separate schemes that may or may not be related to the main mystery, the plot gets confusing, without being particularly intricate.  Still, those are minor objections, easily solved by going into the movie with the expectation you’re going to be watching a detective who solves riddles with blows from his feet and his magic mace, rather than his mind.  Among its weirder features, Dee sports a talking deer with symbols scrawled on his head, robed robots, a kung-fu battle on top of two teams of thundering horses, and a character named “Donkey Wang” who disguises himself using acupuncture.  Dee isn’t a game-changing epic, but it is a two-hour mix of history, fantasy, pageantry, mystery, novelty, intrigue, spectacle and thrills—and that’s a lot for your entertainment dollar.

University of Texas-educated director Tsui Hark is one of the most important figures from the Hong Kong New Wave, basically founding the modern fantasy wuxia genre with his groundbreaking Wu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983).  He has also been enormously important as a producer, financing and guiding odd fantastical projects like the unforgettable A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).  Before Detective Dee, Tsui had helmed a number of financial and artistically disappointing features since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.  This film has been widely hailed as a return to form by the beloved fantasy icon, and a prequel is already in the works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing is meant to seem real in the Chinese ‘Detective Dee,’… [it] entertains us because it is so audaciously unreal.”–Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press (contemporaneous)

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