An exiled detective (Andy Lau) is recruited to solve a series of mysterious deaths that threaten to delay the inauguration of Empress Wu.
If critics and audiences have placed far too much attention on the mythical traditions of the East when viewing the crowded marketplace of historical epics over the last two decades, Asian filmmakers have only themselves to blame. In the last few years alone (certainly since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000), we’ve been bombarded with po-faced wuxia spectacles – mystical, convoluted historical melodramas like John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008), Ronnie Yu’s Fearless (2006) and Zhang Yimou’s The House of Flying Daggers (2004) that look great but offer little that refreshed the genre.
Superficially, one might assume that veteran filmmaker Tsui Hark’s latest, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is more of the same. With a storyline that involves the career resurrection of a mystical detective (Andy Lau) to solve the deaths by spontaneous combustion of high-level officials in the court of the soon-to-be inaugurated Empress Wu in 690AD (...and breathe), his Mandarin-versed sword-and-sorcery adventure has all the hallmarks of a genre whose output is quickly becoming for the fans only.
But Hark, himself coming off a lean period (Seven Swords, 2005; Triangle, 2007; All About Women, 2008), is determined to break free from the constraints the Asian epic has built for itself with Detective Dee. To everyone’s relief (including the Cannes 2010 crowd, where it was a huge non-competition hit), his romp plays exactly like the Sino-centric spin on an Indiana Jones adventure that its title suggests it should.
Sharing a directing credit with the legendary action choreographer Sammo Hung, Hark and scriptwriter Chen Kuo-fu honour the traditions of the wuxia film with a first act that combines immense political might (embodied by the construction of an enormous bronze Stupa in honour of Empress Wu Zetian, played in human-form by Carina Lau), murderous intrigue and superstition (the immolation of Wu’s high-ranking supporters are thought to have come from disrespecting the statue’s spirit) and complex hierarchical and gender characterisations (Dee clashes with the Empress’ chief investigator Pei [Chao Deng] and flirts with the feisty courtesan-warrior accompanying him, Shangguan Wan'er [Bingbing Li]).
Just as the film is feeling burdened by political detail and over-plotting, Hark allows Dee (a stoic but utterly engaging performance by Lau) his freedom – he is soon dabbling in the supernatural as his investigations lead him and his misfit band into an underground world in search of Donkey Wang (Teddy Robin), where dark spirits and puppet-assassins threaten them; into a temple, where Dee is attacked by talking killer-deer (yep); and finally back to the giant statue for a stunt-filled climax on par with anything Hollywood has offered up in recent memory (several critics have commented on its resemblance to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, 2009).
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame looks a whole lot more impressive than its reported US$13million budget should allow. Stunning production design by Sung Pong Choo and effects work from the Korean-based AZ Works (who populate vast vistas of 7th century China meticulously) give the film a blockbuster sheen despite miniscule means. It’s easy to forgive the shortcomings of a film as spirited as Harks (overlong, some lapses in logic and continuity problems) when, on so many levels, it provides so much enjoyment.