Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Year of release: 2010
Director: Tsui Hark
Action directors: Sammo Hung, Yuen Bun, Allen Lan
Producers: Peggy Lee, Tsui Hark, Zhang Da-Jun
Writers: Chen Kuo-Fu, Chang Chia-Lu
Cinematography: Parkie Chan, Chan Chi-Ying
Editing: Yau Chi-Wai
Music: Peter Kam
Stars: Andy Lau, Li Bing-Bing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Deng Chao, Carina Lau, Du Yiheng, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin Kwan
Rated IIB for violence
Movie Review Index
For the most part, Tsui Hark's output during the last ten years was filled with its' share of ups (Seven Swords) and downs (Missing), resulting in some questioning if he could ever return to the top form he showed during the 1980's, when he was considered one of Hong Kong's top directors. While his latest film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is more a piece of populist entertainment than an out-and-out artistic cinematic experience, it's a very well-made popcorn film that should please fans of his work, as well as Hong Kong movies in general.
Based on a novel of the same name written by Lin Qianyu, Detective Dee is a fictionalized historical story that revolves around Di (Dee) Renjie (Andy Lau), an court official who worked during the Tang Dynasty. The movie takes place in 690 AD, when Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to become the first female emperor of China, a fact that does not sit well with many in the government, including Dee, who is sent to prison for his attempts to usurp Wu's ascent to the throne. But after a series of strange deaths involving human combustion take place in the imperial palace, Wu pardons Dee so that he can use his investigative skills to clear everything up before her formal coronation ceremony.
The mystery aspect of the film really isn't all that deep, especially since the main culprit and the inspiration for their actions are telegraphed in fairly obvious fashion relatively early on in the running time. So if you're looking for a mind-bender on the scale of something like Inception, you'd probably better off just watching that movie again, because this is the sort of picture that doesn't exactly tax your brain cells. In a way, though, Tsui's leaner method of story-telling is appreciated, because it never really feels like he's using the viewers as the audience for his experimental and off-kilter filmic mastrubation, where the end product is an in joke that only Tsui himself gets, a trait that characterizes some of his lesser works such as Knock Off.
That's not to say that Detective Dee is a bland or by-the-numbers film at all. Tsui has always been known as one of Hong Kong's most visually talented directors, and that is well evidenced here, especially when combined with action scenes helmed by Sammo Hung, who seems to be settling well into the twilight of his career while still being able to produce high-flying and exciting fight sequences. In particular, this synergy between Tsui and Hung is shown brilliantly in a scene where Dee struggles with an imperial guard (Li Bing-Bing) while under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance. It's an incredibly fun and inventive segment that encapsulates the feeling, as a whole, that most viewers will get from setting aside a couple of hours to check out this film, which was definitely one of the better efforts to come out of Hong Kong in 2010.