Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Produced by: Tsui Hark; Nansun Shi; Peggy Lee
Screenplay by Chen Kuofu; story by Lin Qianyu (novel)
Starring: Andy Lau; Carina Lau; Li Bingbing; Tony Leung Ka-fai; Deng Chao
Release date(s): 29 September 2010
Running time: 122 mins
Country: China; Hong Kong
Budget: US$20 million
The title of the film surely sounds like those children’s books with illustrations, or the story of a Sherlock Holmes wannabe. But the 2010 Chinese film starring Andy Lau, is more than that. In the face of it, it’s a traditional wuxia film with a twist; but if you are prepared to sit through it (it’s a long movie!), this handsomely mounted picture (the film begins inside a giant statue of Buddha, which plays a very important role in the climax, lavishly photographed) has a lot more to offer — action set-pieces, a whodunit plot, a little magic (a talking deer, and transfiguration), a love story, and a sly feminist propaganda, with a bit of a history lesson (after all, the plot features China’s first female emperor, Wu Zetian, in 690 AD.)
After her husband, the Emperor, was dead, the Empress ruled the kingdom as regent for seven years. During this time, she faced severe opposition from the nobles, for her being a woman, among other things. As a political masterstroke, she installed a mysterious chamberlain, a quasi monk-witch doctor figurehead, as her advisor, and at the chamberlain’s behest, ruthlessly silenced all her oppositions. Some were killed, some were maimed and others were jailed. One among them was our hero, Dee, once the king’s favourite, now a traitor.
Now, the Empress wants to ascend the throne. For the D-Day, she decrees building of a giant Buddha statue. As work on completing the statue progresses on war-footing, the chief engineering in the task catches fire for no apparent reasons. That’s the phantom flame for you. The same thing happens to the person investigating the death. What’s going on? Someone doesn’t want the Empress to ascend the throne. There are several suspects. The mysterious chamberlain advises the Empress to release detective Dee from the prison and entrust him the task of solving the mystery. So, the Empress sends her most trusted employee to find Dee.
Here begins the story, with twists at every turn, with Andy Lau’s moustachioed detective jumping from one cliff-hanger to another — the shower of arrows, a visit to a underworld flee market (reminds you of the troll market of Hellboy II, but not as impressive), a fight with deers, a bite of the dreaded fire insect which will turn you into the phantom flame, and finally, we return to the hollow interiors of the of the Buddha statue, and discover the real perpetrators of the crimes.
Detective Dee isn’t ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and the good part is, it does even try to be one. The film knows the importance of the wuxia set-pieces and handles them seriously and magnificently (especially the underground sequences, with the wooden logs jutting out to a flight ); there are several such long sequences, which should be your money’s worth. Yet, what the film attempts is to tell a story, in a classic whodunit fashion, with detective Dee becoming Chinese equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. And in Andy Lau, the film finds a strong anchor to carry the film forward through the myriad maze of misadventures. (You may remember Lau from the very popular ‘Infernal Affairs;’ he was the other guy, the mole in the police force; a role played by Mat Damon in ‘The Departed’.) Lau is a superstar in Hong Kong film industry, the film exploits his filmstar aura.
Tony Leung (the elder one from ‘The Lover,’ not the younger one from ‘Internal Affairs’) plays the antagonist with an understated charm and a maimed hand (like Captain Hook), so much so that you don’t even realise that his role is an important one, till... well, thereby hangs the tale, the mystery.
As the film ends, you expect a sequel. I mean, why not?
Trivia: The China Daily newspaper placed the film on their list of the best ten Chinese films of 2010.