There’s an extraordinarily epic feel to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
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1 Jan 2014 - 12:07 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2016 - 11:56 AM

Frankly, despite decades working as a film journalist, I've pretty much ignored the kung fu genre so when the idea of runninga season of kung fu films on SBS One throughout January was mooted, I was both embarrassed at my lack of knowledge about this style of film and enthusiastic about making up for lost time.

On the basis of the four films included, I'm a convert. The fight sequences in each of them made me shake my head in awe and admiration, but I expected that. What took me by surprise was the density of the stories and the way each of the films is brimming over with unique and compelling characters, vitality, adventure and imagination.

The first in the season, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, also has an extraordinarily epic feel and is rooted in history – something I now know is not uncommon for films of this genre.

The character named in the title and played by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau is based on Di Renjie, an official during the reign of the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, the only woman who has ruled China in her own right. Veteran director Tsui Hark has said that he consulted with five professors about how Empress Wu should be depicted in the script and he chose Carina Lau to portray her. (Given the level of discussion that Empress Wu's gender prompts in the film, it contains more than just a hint of Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership.)

The film is set during the lead up to Empress Wu's coronation in the year 690. There are many twists and turns in the plot but, in essence, it is about how Detective Dee has to find out why people are – wait for it – spontaneously combusting. As with any good whodunit, the audience is kept guessing from the very first sequences right through to the end.

The Empress's right hand woman Jing'er – or “the empress's bitch” as she's referred to by one of the other characters – is also apparently loosely based on a real-life person. She's one of the film's most compelling characters and her skill with a rope makes her seem as much a cowgirl as a martial arts practitioner. If looks really could kill, her facial expressions would also be a very effective weapon too. Li Bingbing plays Jing'er and I've read that she had no experience of martial arts at the time she was cast. That's hard to believe given what's on screen but working closely beside her was one of the industry's most highly regarded choreographers, Sammo Hung.

Given how much there is to marvel about in relation to this film, it is hardly surprising that Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was invited into competition in the Venice Film Festival.

Oh and one last point: a big thankyou to Marc Fennell, presenter of Movie Mayhem and The Feed on SBS2, for co-presenting this season with me. His guidance felt like a safety net.