Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Title: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Director: Tsui Hark
Released: 2010
Starring: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Chao Deng

Plot: In 689 A.D., the Empress Wu Zetian (Lau) is building a 66 m high statue of Buddha for her inauguration as the first empress of China under the objections and conspiracy of the other clans. When the engineer responsible for the construction mysteriously dies by spontaneous combustion, the superstitious workers are afraid since the man removed the good luck charms from the main pillar. Keen to complete the construction, Empress Wu assigns her loyal assistant Shangguan Jing'er (Bingbing) to release the exiled Detective Dee (Lau) from his imprisonment to investigate with the albino inspector Donglai (Deng) aswell as Jing'er to solve the mystery of the deaths.

Review:  Currently I’m in the process of moving house and facing not being able to transfer the sky+ box across. So  now I’m currently in the process of clearing the films I taped with every intention of watching the next day only for them to remain on the box unwatched for the best part of a year, while I got distracted with watching other things, which is essentially the case with the pile of DVD’s sitting by the TV which constantly threatens to fall over and kill me (but what a way to go). For one reason or another this has been sat in my watch pile for a while, which now I’ve finally got around to seeing it only makes it more of a shame that I put off watching it for so long.

Playing like a kung fu version of Sherlock Holmes, the character of Dee is largely based on Di Renjie, a celebrated official of the Tang Dynasty, who’d previously been made famous with Robert van Guik’s series of Judge Dee mysteries and now under the direction of Tsui Hark here makes his spectacular screen debut, with this fast paced and action packaged film with Lau bringing an easy sense of stoic confidence, aswell as capturing the passionate patriotism of the character, even after spending the last eight years imprisoned for opposing the rule of the Empress. At the same time like Holmes he has his own set of quirks, starting with his own self-imposed (yet temporary) blindness while imprisoned, which he explains away as being part of his attempts to shut out the world around him.

For this investigation through Dee also gets suitably strong support from both Shangguan Jing’er and Donglai, with both bringing their own attitudes and skils to the case, with Shangguan fiercely loyal to the Empress she is constantly suspect of Dee, especially considering what he was imprisoned for in the first place. Adding to their issues is the sexual tension between these two characters, which is only added to by Dee holding zero interest in her in that way. Donglai on the hand resents Dee for taking over the case he was originally assigned, only to be overruled by the Empress who instead assigns Dee in charge of the case and even though Dee is not the sort of character who engages in blazing rows, but instead constantly keeps a calm demeanour and uses the facts to lead the others. Despite their differences Donglai still brings a lot of to the investigation, as their duty to uphold the law unites them together.

This trio might be a crack investigation team, but they only add to their strength as a team with some truly amazing martial arts skills, with Shangguan carrying her whip which is more of an extension of her arm and seemingly comes with a million uses seeing how handy it comes in throughout the case. Dee though gets the coolest weapon, with his dragon-taming mace, which is essentially a long metal pole, whose spinning attachment helps locate the weak spot of his opponents weapon so that his strikes cause it to shatter, something which proves to be equally effective on odd bits of architecture as he proves with an early demonstration of the weapons power. The real draw though is with the stunning martial arts sequences and wire work choreographed by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung who ensures that the action quota is high with a stunning showdown inside the giant Buddha, with each fight scene aiming to give the audience they haven’t seen before.
The actual detective work however is largely grounded in fantastical logic and while the film might not be big on reality, its explanations for things such as the spontaneous combustion is always plausible within the confines of this film, much like Donkey Wang’s ability to use acupuncture to change his face. Not that you will actually question any of these things, thanks to the sense of fun that the film projects it makes such fantastical leaps in logic easy to go along with, even the whole talking deer randomness.

While the film contains a lot of gloss with its stunning scenery and costumes, this is a far more popcorn friendly affair than its “Hero” esq styling would have you believe it to be with Hark clearly making the most of what is possibly one of his largest budgets to date and ensures that it shows on the screen, from the towering Buddha which frequently dominates the screen through to the underground lair of Donkey Wang (yes that is actually his name), with Hark ensuring the film travels through locations as colourful as the characters which inhabit them.

Rarely is it that I will find myself watching a film and instantly wishing for a sequel which was certainly the case here, even if it doesn’t exactly end in the easiest of places for a follow up. No doubt because of this situation the studio are going down the prequel route for their next Detective Dee adventure and even though Lau won’t be returning with the role of Dee set to be played by Mark Chao. Honestly though if it is half as much fun as this film I can hardly wait!

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