Before there was American director Zack Snyder and his amazing control of the visual medium of film, there was Chinese director Tsui Hark. This is a man who can paint a pretty cinematic picture like few others. Also similar to Mr. Snyder, the content that actually goes into these pretty pictures that these directors produce is usually up for spirited debate. In fact, the last film from Tsui Hark that I have seen, almost a decade ago, was ‘Black Mask 2’, a movie that has the rare distinction of being one of two films in my entire life that I actually couldn’t finish watching. Since I didn’t finish it, I’m not allowed to say anything of value about it because it might’ve gotten a lot better after I turned it off. Nonetheless, today we have Mr. Hark back in the director’s chair, giving us one heck of a lush, melodramatic, meandering, epic movie featuring swords, sorcery, deception, mystery, talking animals and of course lot’s of kung fu mayhem with ‘Detective Dee and Mystery of the Phantom Flame’.
Somebody is out to kill Empress Wu (Carina Lau), the first female emperor of China, for no other reason than she’s a woman. At least to hear Empress Wu tell it. She could’ve tossed into the mix that she’s manipulative, murderous, scheming, and duplicitous, just like any other ambitious sovereign leader, but she left that part out. Regardless, a giant Buddha temple is being built in honor of her upcoming coronation, but it is momentarily stopped due to the director of this architectural marvel spontaneously combusting into flames. Crazy. Next thing we know, the constable in charge of investigating this spontaneous combustion incident also burst into flames. Clearly somebody is dealing with elements that few understand and that’s why the wise, talking elk advises the Empress to free imprisoned dissident and former enemy of her state Detective Dee (Andy Lau). Yep, I said talking elk. It’s a spiritual advisor. People freak out over folks spontaneously bursting into flames but everyone’s cool with talking animals.
With Dee out of prison, not without some pyrotechnics mind you, the die is cast and adventure is afoot. To keep Dee in check, The Empress has assigned her right hand
with the vicious whip, Jing‘er (Bingbing Li) to keep a real close eye on the detective while he investigates, and also assisting the detective, while keeping an eye on him and Jing‘er, is hot tempered albino investigator Donglai (Chao Deng).
As Detective Dee inches closer and closer to the truth, assassins and their poison tipped arrows are everywhere, everyone is a potential suspect, absolutely no one can be trusted and the identity of our killer, a killer that is completely out or control right about now, is a complete mystery. Well not really. Due to the time tested ‘law of diminishing characters’, it’s pretty darned obvious who the killer is, we just need to watch and see if Detective Dee can stop this villain before he succeeds in pulling off his nefarious plan.
I can tell you one thing for sure about Hark’s ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’, outside of the fact that it has a really long title, but this is one grand, fantastic looking film with a true epic feel about it. It also helps Hark’s cause that he has the magnetic Andy Lau headlining his epic who continues to give solid performance after solid performance. Admittedly we were a little concerned about Mr. Lau after seeing ‘Future-X Cops’ last year, but we’ll just pass that little hiccup off as the man just doing somebody a favor. The performances in this fantasy epic were solid across the board, featuring the winsome Bingbing Li, who was whipping people with her hair in the ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ a few movies ago, and today she’s whipping people with a golden whip and looking damn good doing it. Carina Lau was completely ruthless as Empress Wu and and Chao Deng was plenty creepy as the albino investigator Donglai.
Not surprisingly Sammo Hung’s action choreography was thrilling to witness for the most part with some spectacular wire fu battles taking place, though the Detective Dee battle versus the herd of CGI Elk was a little strange. The sets design was lush and detailed, and the entire film had high dollar gloss over it which gave the experience of watching something truly epic in design.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly either, ‘Detective Dee’ does feature a lot of Tsui Hark’s disjointed styled story telling. With so much going on and so many different elements and so many characters being introduced, the mix does tend to get slightly discombobulated when trying to keep everything in order. After a while I think you just push aside attempting to keep all the different elements in an organized row, whose trying to hoodwink who, stop contemplating the science behind a talking elk, and just rest assured that somehow Detective Dee is going to clean this mess up somehow, and hopefully do it in spectacular fashion. Which he does. Again, I don’t know how Detective Dee figured out a lot of the things he figured out, but I knew when his eyes narrowed, he’d done figured it out and he was probably going to have to beat somebody up in the process.
‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’ is very much a Tsui Hark movie. Wonderful to look at while scattershot with its narrative, but this time around I think we’re seeing the director working from the position which suits him the best.