Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
by Adrienne Jill Foon
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Despite its campy title and a few campy elements which, to be fair, are actually an ode to traditional martial arts films, I found Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame both engaging and captivating. What’s not to like about a story of a real life FEMALE ruler equipped with her own right hand woman, a stunning and skilled fighter Jing-Er (Lee Bing Bing), alongside the eventually very handsome Andy Lau? Yes, eventually handsome, you’ll have to see the transformation for yourself.
Acclaimed director Tsui Hark’s new film is another visually stunning period masterpiece with a star-studded cast of some of China’s A-list actors: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Lee Bing Bing, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. And it is choreographed by none other than the great Sammo Hung. The film is derived from a popular Chinese detective novel series published anonymously in the 18th century and based on a real historical figure, Dee Renjie from the Tang Dynasty. The story has hugely influenced both Chinese and Western writers and audiences.
The film starts out on the eve of the coronation of China’s first and only female ruler, Empress Wu (Carina Lau), in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) with a rush to finish the construction of an enormous Bodhisattva pagoda structure that overlooks the palace to commemorate this event. A few of her key officials have burst into flames under mysterious circumstances. Detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), who has been imprisoned in chains and assigned to burn obituaries for the last 8 years by Wu for his rebellious attempts in the past to prevent her political maneuvering, is released and cautiously enlisted by Wu to solve the mystery of the phantom flames before it jeopardizes her ascension to the throne.
Her right hand woman, Jing-Er, is sent to keep an eye on him to oversee his loyalty. If you can ignore the ridiculousness of their feet never touching the ground when chasing someone to fight, there are amazing (non-gory, thank goodness for my sake) fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Jing-Er instantly becomes every girl’s heroine with her beauty and martial arts expertise matching in visual amazement that of the handsome Detective Dee. The costumes are stunning in both style and color, and Wu’s hair styles are works of art, though Pei Donglai’s (the pale warrior) bonnet was a bit ridiculous . The numerous twists and turns of the story keep you on the edge of your seat and the delicate love theme keeps the characters human instead of just fighting machines. It follows a bit of a Sherlock Holmes pattern where the mystery unravels as each clue is discovered and pursued with that ‘beat the clock’ rush trying to anticipate the enemies’ next moves.
Elements of the supernatural and a sinister underworld are used à la Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. I found the revered magical talking deer a bit silly but I believe it adheres to the traditional structure of Chinese fiction which includes elements of the supernatural. I also thought the opening sequence was strange as it featured a European General approaching in a carriage to view the Buddha structure being built. It seemed unnecessary and out of context since the man looked like he was straight out of a King Arthur film but the writers wanted to introduce the cultural influence at the time. The film is set in Chang’an, China’s capital at that time, and captures the affluence and some of the cultural influences (approximately 25,000 foreigners were living in the city at the time). Other more interesting foreign elements are added throughout in the background as well.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, with its remarkable visual scenery, superb cast, and intriguing story line, will keep you engaged until the end.
Adrienne Jill Foon is a freelance writer in Santa Monica.
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