A Chinese epic for die-hards
By John DeFore
Friday, Sep 23, 2011
Filmmaker Tsui Hark, who helped define Hong Kong cinema in the '80s and '90s, brings supernatural sleuthing to the Tang Dynasty in "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame," a lightweight but enjoyable yarn set in the days before the official rise to power of China's only empress regnant.
The title character, Dee Renjie, is a well-known figure in Chinese history, whose actual adventures were perhaps slightly less colorful than the ones Hark and his screenwriters envision here. Played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau, Dee is the kind of righteous and sharp-eyed truth-seeker even a monarch might fear. He's been in prison since participating in a rebellion against Empress Wu, but she releases him to investigate mysterious spontaneous-combustion deaths; Wu, who is already the empire's unofficial ruler, fears they're part of a plot to interfere with her inauguration.
In an environment where many scheme against the empress, Dee is joined by two partners whose own loyalties may conflict: Donglai, a white-haired hotshot who never walks somewhere when he can fly through the air, and Jing'er, the empress's chief officer, assigned to help Dee but probably to spy on him as well. Together they'll explore places with such names as the Phantom Bazaar and Infinity Monastery, discover "fire beetles" and talk with magic deer, and reveal the secrets of acupressure transfiguration.
Fight choreographer Sammo Hung, who in his early career worked on amazing-but-real stunts for Jackie Chan flicks, here sticks with the wire-enabled style in which fighters leap and tumble through space while dodging the occasional 50-foot whip or hail of poison arrows. The action isn't Hung's finest, but it gets more involving the more curious we become about the three protagonists and the secrets they keep.
Though Hark offers splendid, colorful production design and impressive sets (a Buddha bigger than the Statue of Liberty, for example), he also goes long on computer-enhanced backdrops - oceans full of massive ships, for instance, that make "Dee" look a bit like a George Lucas film.
Though it uses historical figures (as many wuxia tales do), "Dee" doesn't shoot for the gravitas of Zhang Yimou's "Hero." It doesn't approach that film's magnificent sensory impact, either, or the artistic romanticism that made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" such a success here. Instead, the movie's rollicking vibe targets the genre's die-hard fans - moviegoers who don't need to be sold on a new action epic set in seventh-century China and are just happy American distributors continue to put them on big screens occasionally before squashing their lavish visuals onto DVDs.
Contains violence, disturbing images and some sexuality. In Mandarin with English subtitles.