Thursday, 23 June 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame


Directed by: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Jialu Zhang, Kuo-fu Chen
Starring: Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, Carina Lau, Chao Deng, Tony Leung Kai Fai

Legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark (Seven Swords, Time & Tide and the quite awesome, The Blade) delivers a big, stunning looking blockbuster that harks back to the golden Hong Kong fantasy days of A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman 2. Combining his unique visual skills with his knack for impressive production and action design, his new film Detective Dee is one part fantasy, one part detective mystery and one part wuxia action. Big, adventurous and with some thrilling set-pieces Detective Dee can't always keep up with its uniqueness but is still an inventive and often wildly entertaining ride.

Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau is the titular Detective Dee, a master investigator who has spent the last 8 years or so in exile for treason. He dared to disagree with the ruling hand of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), the first women ruler of the empire, so was whisked off to prison. But days before her inauguration into power, some of Wu's most important people are being murdered: bizarrely bursting into flames. Fearing her safety and believing Dee is the only man who can solve the puzzle of the mysterious spontaneous combustion sweeping the land, she sets him free. So, with a couple of bad ass fighters in tow, Dee sets out to solve the crime coming up against all manner of strange goings on: including folks who can transform their appearance through acupuncture, a band of deadly assassins who keep trying to kill him, a gigantic statue he must stop from falling onto the Empress' palace and, er, a talking deer.

Many having been comparing Detective Dee to Guy Ritchie's recent reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes and I suppose that is a good starting point. Both deal with master detectives, in a period setting, having to solve a bizarre mystery while constantly having to fight off ever increasing enemies and deal with more and more strangeness as the mystery develops. Both films are slick in production value and packed with spectacle but Hark's film owes just as much to fantasy and wuxia films from the 80s and early 90s. While the film is a mystery at heart there is still plenty of out-there stylings and high flying action. Visually the film is a delight existing in a sort of comic book styled bygone dynasty and with magic and oddness at play, Hark gets to flex his creative muscles: people bursting into flames, an opponent who can split into three and fight many combatants at once and that talking deer, which commands a whole herd of deer that Detective Dee has to fight at one highly inventive point. No really, Andy Lau lays the smackdown on some marauding deer. Awesome.

Over seeing (in part) all the smackdown in none other than Sammo Hung, here helping to craft several ingenious flight-of-fancy set-pieces that are inventive, OTT and feature some high impact martial arts. There is that great set-piece featuring the dude who can split in three and an impressive finale where Dee takes on the bad guys inside the massive statue while attempting to stop it from falling. There is lots of flying through the air and characters engaging in physics bending fighting so this is not so much the one-on-one type of intricate combat but for fans of wuxia, which only Hong Kong can do so well, then this is a treat.

On the downside, the pace doesn't always keep up with the imaginative goings on meaning the film does tend to drag on occasion with a little too much exposition being thrown about. Still, Hark keeps a handle on everything and good to see the director pushing his creative boundaries once again. A quality Hong Kong fantasy blockbuster that could see the title character having many more adventures. Which wouldn't be a bad thing.

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