Detective Dee. Plus a Temple of Doom.

by wjw on July 5, 2012

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame never made it to New Mexico, so far as I know, so it took me a while to see it.  Directed by my onetime creative associate Tsui Hark, the film showcases Tsui’s deranged imagination as well as his usual breathtaking imagery. Along with lots of big, bright, expensive special effects.

You won’t be bored.

The film is based vaguely on history, but that doesn’t slow it down much.  Judge Dee— Di Renjie— was a jurist and imperial official during the Tang Dynasty who served a number of monarchs, including Wu Zetian, China’s only reigning Empress.  He was said to be a moderating influence on Empress Wu, who ruled ruthlessly through her secret police, but otherwise seemed to have done well for China and for Chinese culture.  Empress Wu exalted Buddhism over other religions, motivated no doubt by the sexism of Confucian thought.

We open with the Empress Wu (Carina Lau) firmly in charge, about to crown herself empress as soon as she finishes a 66-yard-tall bronze statue of the Buddha (who, by coincidence no doubt, happens to look amazingly like Empress Wu).  All seems well until the statue’s architect bursts into flame, followed by the Supreme Court judge who investigates the incident.  This human combustion no longer seems so spontaneous!

The Court is at sixes and sevens, until the Court Chaplain, who is off on a religious retreat, sends his Magic Deer.  The Deer advises the Empress to bring Judge Dee back from exile, and the Empress— impressed, no doubt, by a deer that speaks fluent Chinese— sends her young protegée Jing’er (Li Bingbing) to do exactly that.  When Jing’er catches up with Dee— who is a chained prisoner condemned to burn memorials to the Empress after they’ve been dealt with— she finds that he’s already being attacked by a legion of black-clad assassins!

Butt is kicked all ’round.  Soon Dee, the World’s Greatest Detective (played by the ever-reliable Andy Lau), is on the case, along with Jing’er and Pei, the eerie albino judge from the Supreme Court.  Everyone seems to have their own agenda.  Assassins are on the move.  Generals and princes plot against the Empress.  And what does the Court Chaplain, clearly a powerful sorcerer, have to do with any of this?  (He seems to be holed up in, well, a Temple of Doom.)

What with spontaneous human combustion and talking ruminants, it’s clear we’ve strayed far from straight historical drama.  Assuming that you care about that sort of thing, you won’t care for long, because Tsui keeps topping himself with one incredible scene after another, much of it involving Sammo Hung’s fight choreography.  (I find Hung’s choreography very good but not brilliant, though YMMV.)

Even the Magic Deer gets his ass whupped.

I enjoyed the movie greatly, for all that it was a bit exhausting.  But as with other special effects-driven epics, I found that it lacked the soul that was inspired by simpler times (and lower budgets).  Tsui’s earlier films developed a crazy, improvised quality as his frenetic imagination worked his way around his budget’s limitations, but now that he’s shackled to a big special-effects budget, with the effects having to be planned out well ahead of time, some of the earlier magic is lost.

A sequel is planned.  And the film should get points for excellent use of Tall Tony Leung (Kar-Fai) in a small but crucial role.


Dave Bishop July 5, 2012 at 11:06 am

I seem to recall that a writer called Robert van Gulik wrote a series of mystery novels about ‘Judge Dee’ back in the 1960s (?). I read a couple of them, in my far distant youth, but remember nothing about them now. I would have thought that plot elements involving human combustion, magic deer and martial arts would have stuck in my memory … but maybe not?

Pat Mathews July 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm

As a fan of those books, I rented the flick from Netflix and enjoyed it thoroughly. A bit more choppy-socky than detection, but still …

Gary Gibson July 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm

By a funny coincidence, this is on TV tomorrow night here in the UK. I’ll check it out.

John F. MacMichael July 5, 2012 at 10:46 pm

I saw this last year when it was in Portland. An enjoyable spectacle. However, the first time I saw it, about two thirds of the way thru, all the actors suddenly were fighting while upside down. My first thought was that this was a radical new kung fu style. Then I saw that the subtitles were reversed and I realized that a reel of film had been put in backwards. Came back for a second viewing and saw it all the way to the end.

Karen Lofstrom July 6, 2012 at 7:39 am

I found it boring. “Ho-hum, yet another fight.” Fighting usually doesn’t interest me, unless it’s being done by someone with impressive martial arts skills, filmed without CGI tricks.

I haven’t yet figured out how to fast-forward with Windows Media Player. Could I do that with VLC? Fast-forwarding makes boring movies bearable.

Dave D July 13, 2012 at 6:10 am

Andy Lau is awesome. I’ll have to see this. And Tony Leung! Sold!

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