Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Still courtesy of TIFF.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Directed by Tsui Hark (China, Contemporary World Cinema)
It’s not like he always churns out masterpieces, but Hong Kong golden boy Tsui Hark has a way with high-fantasy epics. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is Hark’s latest wuxia film, that genre where sword-yielding heroes whoosh around ancient China crossing blades (Western crossover hits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers). Though very loosely based on the life of Dí Rénjié, a consort to Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian, Hark’s film turns Dí Rénjié into Detective Dee (Andy Lau) a gumshoe martial artist.
Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is all set for her coronation ceremony, and many people are none too happy about it. Her ascension to the throne and interruption of the Tang Dynasty proves controversial, not least of all because she was vilified for being China’s first female ruler, but also because she was a murderous villain, infamous for making short work of dissidents (her motto: “To achieve greatness, everyone is expendable”). One such insurgent is Dee, who was sentenced to prison for leading an uprising against the empress. But when officials close to her start spontaneously combusting, the empress knows only Dee can crack the case.
Sprung from prison, Dee traces the murders from an enormous Buddha monument being constructed near the royal palace, to an underground bazaar, to a monastery populated with talking CGI deer. The plot is surprisingly coherent (though still very silly) for a Hark epic, and with all the typical daredevil action choreography to boot. You wouldn’t want to watch it as a way of cramming for your Ancient Chinese History exam, but if you want to see what Hark looks like when he’s trying to match the budgets, vision and CGI-kablammo of Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro, Detective Dee is a good bit of fun.
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