Film Review: Tsui Hark's 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame'

September 6, 2011


Fueled by technological advances in computer graphics and renewed interest in national history, Chinese martial arts epics have experienced quite a rebirth in the last decade, with every major director jumping in to produce his own CGI-filled extravaganza. This has delivered some successes (John Woo’s Red Cliff), as well as some stinkers (Chen Kaige’s The Promise).

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is the latest entry in this field and comes from renowned director Tsui Hark, who can be credited with starting the subgenre with his 1983 movie Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Originally released in Asia in 2010, the film has since gobbled up the box office and won a number regional awards. Detective Dee finally makes it stateside today, courtesy of Indomina Releasing

The story is set during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) of the Tang dynasty, who is the only female emperor in Chinese history and best remembered for bringing prosperity to her people and unspeakable brutality to her enemies. The movie begins with a series of bizarre deaths in which the victims, who all happen to be the empress’ subordinates, incinerate to ashes when their bodies come in contact with the sun. This leads the worried empress to believe that some divine force is at work trying to prevent a woman from ruling the kingdom. Cue Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a former government magistrate put in prison for rebelling against the empress some years prior, but now the only one with the ability to solve the murders. 

The investigation that convenes is best described as Sherlock Holmes meets "wire-fu." We follow Dee as he races through one set-piece after another, engaging himself in multiple rounds of acrobatic flying kicks in underground caves as well as on the roofs of Buddhist temples until the real culprit is revealed. Different historical figures make appearances to bring credence to the story’s Tang Dynasty context, but the actual twists and betrayals that pepper the plot could be seen miles ahead by anyone familiar with Chinese martial arts films. 

Then again, the appeal of this movie is not its history lesson, but seeing how Tsui Hark sets up creative fighting encounters. In his previous movies, Tsui often forgoes narrative cohesion for visual flair, and it’s no different here -- his trademark tracking shots, atmospheric fog, and color variations all make the cut, although at times it’s obvious that he has gone overboard with the CG. While not all of these visuals experiments work, they at least keep the eyes glued to the screen to see what shows up next. Best of all, Andy Lau is at his charismatic-as-always best and provides a screen presence that holds all the silliness together. Other stars such as Tony Leung, Carina Lau, and Li Bing Bing fill out the supporting cast with enough commitment to cover for the implausibility of their characters’ dealings. Plot incongruities and some messy CG work aside, Detective Dee warrants a visit to the multiplex for any martial arts fan.  

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame comes out in New York and Los Angeles on September 2, San Francisco and other major cities on September 16.