Judge Dee is a fictional Chinese detective loosely based on one Dí Rénjié, an official to the Chinese Tang Dynasty who twice served as chancellor to the only female Empress Regnant in China’s history, Wu Zetian, and who supposedly performed all kinds of acts of magnanimity. These acts inspired the Empress Regnant, who was notoriously cruel, and transformed her into a super wise and benevolent leader. Judge Dee was popularized in the anonymously penned Chinese detective novel Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, which was published sometime in the 18th century and which was translated into English 200 odd years later, in 1949, by Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat. Robert van Gulik would later go on to write a truly breathtaking number of detective novels all featuring Judge Dee, and all original material. And anyway the point being that the most recent film from Tsui Hark, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and its eponymous protagonist, Detective Dee, are both loosely based on this character Judge Dee, who is loosely based on this person named Dí Rénjié.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a pretty unsophisticated and boilerplate detective film with some sloppy CGI and some pretty solid martial arts. As far as the plot goes, without spoiling any of the “twists,” some marginally important people are exploding into flame right before Wu Zetian’s coronation and she’s feeling appropriately freaked out about the whole thing, so she calls in Detective Dee and orders him to solve the problem before she becomes Empress Regnant. Mystery and intrigue and many assassination attempts ensue. The interesting thing about Detective Dee is that all of the good guys, excepting Detective Dee, are kind of mean and assholeish and always look like they’re on the verge of being exposed as the bad guy, especially his albino sidekick Pei Donglai, whose eyes I’m pretty sure weren’t Satanic-red, but that’s how I keep remembering them cause he seemed pretty Satanic and overly prone to violence whenever he appeared on screen. Of course, this is all trademark detective-film-misdirection and the bad guy naturally ends up being the nicest and most demure character of the lot, which hopefully doesn’t give it away. Andy Lau gives a capable but rote performance as the wise and gravity-defyingly good-at-martial-arts Detective Dee, as does the rest of the cast, and the film’s “nicely paced,” if that means anything, and so, all in all, it was a fairly enjoyable (but forgettable) experience.