‘Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame’ opens at the Landmark Century in Chicago and the Century 12 and CineArts 6 in Evanston on Friday, September 23rd.
A mind-boggling entertainment in the best Hong Kong traditions, Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (China / Hong Kong, 2010) takes a 7th-century folk hero’s history and frappés it into a supernatural thriller / adventure that immerses you in lushly gorgeous regal pageantry, major-league CGI expressionism and like-a-trip-to-the-ballet fight choreography. Like the gigantic Empress / Buddha tower around which our characters grapple with mystery, treachery and sorcery, the film threatens to topple over from its own goofy weight, but manages to sustain itself as a superior late-summer action blockbuster.
There really was a ‘Detective Dee’ in Chinese history – Di Renjie – and he indeed served the Empress Wu Zetian in the 7th century. He originally served the Emperor Gaozong admirably in regional supreme courts as a judge, and was a respected prefect for Gaozong’s successor, his son Ruizong (Wu served as Dowager Empress), until Di fell out of favor with him. Ruizong’s chancellor, Zhang Guangfu, mercilessly punished and executed suspected rebels, and Di, a far more diplomatic and generous leader, denounced him in public as excessively cruel. Ruizong demoted him to a far sleepier prefecture, and he lost a great deal of influence until the Empress Wu took the throne (by now it was clear that Ruizong had merely served as Wu’s puppet anyway) in 690. Wu Zetian called Di back and made him one of her deputy finance ministers. Di Renjie’s career was peppered with troublemaking incidents – he was a right-minded advocate for fairness, and a beloved figure to the general populace, but he often ran afoul of Wu’s military and secret police, and at one point came close to being executed for treason. In many ways, Di Renjie’s colorful life became legend, and the Chinese, following John Ford’s advice, printed the legend. In the 19th century, books started appearing featuring ‘Judge Dee,’ obviously based on Di – they were translated into English in the forties, taken up as a series by Robert van Gulik, and subsequently spawned a Chinese TV series. The character of Dee has since morphed into a crime-solving nomad who has Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation and deduction, an unerring bullshit-detector for political hackery, and a soft spot for the poor-and-downtrodden average citizen.
As the film begins, various dignitaries who have a hand in the construction of that immense Empress / Buddha tower (being built for the Empress Wu’s coronation)are self-combusting, actually being set on fire from within. The Imperial Chaplain, obviously a very powerful sorcerer, appears to the Empress in the form of a talking deer (believe me, Tsui is just getting started) and tells her that, for the evil to be vanquished, she must release Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from prison (he’s been jailed for treason, far more interesting than a demotion to the sticks). Dee returns and takes the case, with the Empress’ cautious blessing, and the assistance of two of her trusted subordinates, Pei Donglai (Chao Deng, looking like an albino James Bond movie henchman) and Shangguan Jing’er (the talented and convincing Li Bingbing). The two emissaries of the Empress are anxious to kick ass and take names, but Dee knows he must protect some of his shadier friends from them in order to get information. And the more mystical, crazy-ass information he gets, the wilder and more astonishingly creative the story becomes. He gets confirmation on his own theories from Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka Fei, not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, one of Wong Kar Wei’s favorite leading men – in Chinese films, you really can’t tell the players without a scorecard – but they’re both terrific actors), a former prisoner who, now reformed, is the supervisor of the peasant work force on the tower. This clue leads him to the Phantom Bazaar, a spooky underground city that has become a secret black market for criminals and outcasts. There they search for, and find, Dr. Donkey Wang (it’s not what you think, but Tsui also knows what you’ll think – he’s fun and tricky that way); he turns out to be the former Imperial physician, Wang Bo (Richard Eng and Teddy Robin – two actors makes sense here, trust me), now in hiding. But in their search, they must do battle with the Imperial Chaplain – no deer here, but manifested by a jawdropping array of assassin-marionettes and killer robots. Now Dee, with Wang’s information, must infiltrate Infinity Monastery, and confront the mysterious and powerful Imperial Chaplain ‘himself.’
Generally, the plot’s pretty easy to follow, despite chunks of it being just spectacular nonsense; Tsui Hark never lets logic get in the way of a good story, but he doesn’t let the fantastical completely run away with the film, either. He also displays an impressive grasp of how, why and when to use computer graphics and animation. Real people inhabit, and real things happen in, his baroquely-imagined environments; most of this world is CG, but he inures you to the style throughout – he doesn’t save the effects just for the cool parts, so, when the cool parts do appear, they seem credible in his overall magical context. The film’s design elements are outstanding, and, needless to say, the great Sammo Hung’s fight choreography is non-pareil. He’s also cast canny Hong Kong veterans who can hold their own in the sea of Tsui’s imaginative world – Andy Lau has done great work for Zhang Yimou, Johnnie To, and Wai-keung Lau’s ‘Infernal Affairs’ films, and the great Carina Lau plays Empress Wu.
Tsui Hark, as a director and a producer, is one of the masters of brilliantly entertaining, batshit-crazy Hong Kong films. You’ve never seen anything like them. My first was ‘Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain’ (1983), followed by ‘Peking Opera Blues’ (1986), the ‘Better Tomorrow’ series (1986-9) and ‘Once Upon A Time In China’ (1991). I don’t recommend your seeing these films under the influence of substances – they provide their own impressive contact high. ‘Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame’ runs about twenty minutes too long for my tastes, but you’re more exhausted than bored. I’ll put this film up against anything Hollywood has served up all summer, and it will crush the competition for flat-out thrills and entertainment. Treat yourself to this ripping film, then reward yourself with the earlier films, too.