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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
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by Jay Seaver

"Wuxia-lock Holmes."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" hits a lot of my sweet spots - it can be described as a Chinese martial-arts take on Sherlock Holmes, with a blockbuster budget, Tsui Hark directing with abandon, and fight choreography by Sammo Hung. There's a lot of potential for awesome in there, but with that comes the potential for "too much". It manages both on more than one occasion, but eventually winds up as entertaining as it so desperately wants to be.

In 689AD, Empress Wu Zeitan (Carina Lau), after serving as regent for seven years, was preparing to formally ascend to the throne, despite the objections of many to a woman taking that role, and she intends to unveil a Towering Buddha statue, 66 yards tall, at her coronation. When a foreign ambassador is being given a tour, though, disaster strikes - master Jia (Yan Qin), who had previously removed some good-luck talismans, bursts into flames for no apparent reason. Xue Yong (Liu Jin-shan), leader of the supreme court, has one theory; up-and-coming investigator Pei Dong-lai (Deng Chao) has another. The Imperial Chaplain suggests that the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau) lead the investigation, despite the fact that he has been imprisoned eight years for opposing Empress Wu, leading her to make sure her most trusted retainer, the lovely and capable Shangguan (Li Bingbing), follows him closely.

Now, it should be noted that Imperial Chaplain Lu Li does not give this advice himself - his Magic Deer does. Though Dee is treated as a Sherlock Holmes type who examines the evidence, takes nothing for granted, and deduces culprits logically, this version of folk hero Di Renjie lives in a world that is larger than life, often gloriously so: The chaplain can make deer talk, a poison can cause people to burst into flames like sunburnt vampires, people carry around weapons with names like "Meteor Hammer" and "Dragon-Felling Mace", and acupuncture can really do wonders for one's appearance. Little expense is spared depicting this world; every detail is attended to, and the CGI involved generally looks more than serviceable. Sure, a deer talking just isn't going to look right no matter what, and there are moments here and there that Hollywood would maybe do 10% better for twice the cost, but this is a very nice looking movie.

All that grandeur can make telling a detective story tricky, but the writers seldom use their fantastical elements to get themselves out of a corner they've painted themselves into. The mystery is close to fair play, although the solution does tend to support the old mystery-show rule that your best bets for the villains are the best actors, since they can make the believable transition when the character's perfidy is revealed. What's most enjoyable, though, is that they and the cast create a trio of interesting characters for the center of the story that don't fit a pre-established template: Even if you accept Dee as a Holmes type, neither Dong-lei and Shangguan are really Watsons. Though (likely) chasing the same goal and (probably) working together, they are more rivals than sidekicks.

And that is pretty terrific to watch. Andy Lau plays Dee as a man fully certain of his genius, not exactly humbled by his long incarceration but more likely to have his disagreement come out as dry wit rather than nasty words for it. Deng Chao, on the otherhand, plays Dong-lai as a young hotshot who hasn't learned humility; he's got the tone and body language of a guy just waiting for someone to challenge his finding so that he can destroy them. Li Bingbing's Shangguan is the more aristocratic member of the trio, the longtime confidante of the Empress who at least initially resents this babysitting duty. Of course, they are joined by a fine cast of royals and rogues - Carina Lau projects Empress Wu always being the smartest person in the room even when she's holding cards close to the vest, Tony Leung Ka-fai hits the right note as an old and humbled friend of Dee's now working on the statue, Teddy Robin can be surprisingly serious as a former court physician with knowledge of exotic poisons, Yao Lu may be making an anti-Empress noble a too obvious villain... It's an entertaining but not overwhelming cast.

One where a lot of them can at least fight well on-screen, because Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung put them through their paces. There are wires involved, but not so much that the whole sequence looks unrealistic from the start, and while Hark is not big on restraint - a flight of arrows early on winds up big enough to skirt the line between suspenseful and comedic moments - he knows enough not to diminish what the audience is seeing by overdoing it or making crazy blows seem too effortless. The fantastical weapons fit right in with the heavy blows, the scenes are framed so that the audience can get a good look at what's going on, and the movie isn't afraid to give even protagonists blows that they're not going to recover from.

Which, sure, might take away from sequels to a movie whose English-language title certainly hints at a franchise. But even if this one Detective Dee movie is all we get, it's a corker, and a return to form for Hark (who just hadn't been the same since briefly coming to America fifteen years ago).

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originally posted: 07/16/11 07:35:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 67th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 67th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

1/16/12 mr.mike Is "no bad". 4 stars
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  02-Sep-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Dec-2011


  DVD: 13-Dec-2011

Directed by
  Tsui Hark

Written by
  Jialu Zhang

  Andy Lau
  Carina Lau
  Li Bingbing
  Chao Deng
  Tony Leung Ka Fai

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