DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011) (***1/2)
What I love about so many Chinese historical epics is how they blend history and myth. Now famed director Hark Tsui, who created the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, brings the real life story of Chinese historical icons Detective Dee and Empress Wu to the screen in a big budget, vfx-driven spectacle that includes spontaneous human combustion, high flying kung fu and a talking deer.
Detective Dee (Andy Lau, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) was exiled after engaging in a revolt against regent Wu (Carina Lau, 2046), who he believed was murdering her way into becoming the first empress of China. On the eve of her coronation, a series of mysterious murders have occurred where people have been bursting into flames. Wu decides to bring back Dee in order to prove that she is not involved and partners him with her top officer Shangguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM).
But he doesn't know who to trust, so he seeks the advice of the arrogant albino detective Pei Donglai (Chao Deng, ASSEMBLY), who is also a suspect. At the site of one of the murders, the construction site of the giant Buddha created in the likeness of Wu, he meets one of his former conspirators, the foreman Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fai, ELECTION), who leads the investigation into a supernatural direction and adds the powerful and mysterious chaplain into the growing possible murderer list.
Detective Dee uses keen observation like Sherlock Holmes in a movie that has the vibe of a 7th century James Bond flick. If a top sleuth has to have a cool weapon what would be cooler than one that can determine weaknesses? Dee's mace can find the flaw in an opponent's weapon and then destroy it. That's a gadget that 007 never had. Like HERO, this tale has very Chinese themes. Dee is more interested in the greater good than revenge. He is determined to find the murderer, but not if it costs innocent people their lives. As a result he comes off as a noble, selfless figure.
Visually alone this film is worth seeing. The action set pieces, costumes and fight choreography are rich and exciting. The sky-scraper-high Buddha is a magnificent construction. I'd vote for it to be the eighth wonder of the world. The Phantom city is an underground black market where six-armed men play instruments, mechanical puppets attack and boat rides are inspired by the River Styx. Looking at Empress Wu's elaborate gowns, one wonders how long it takes her to get dressed in the morning. The chaplain's retreat is guarded by evocative stone statues that suggest movement and a herd of deer that aren't afraid to use their antlers.
The real Detective Dee was Di Renjie, an official who served in the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Wu Zetian's Zhou Dynasty and was a key figure in transforming Wu's reign from terror to honesty. You won't see the real version of his story here. But when you're making a fantastical epic detective tale use the legend instead of the truth every time.