The last time I saw a Tsui Hark directed film was 2008’s romantic ghost story called “Missing” which I didn’t really care for that much. Well, it seems like the director who has been hailed as China’s defining director in the 80’s and in the early 90’s has finally returned to the genre that he does very well with “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”. It is an entertaining period film that is a welcome return to real Wuxia madness that made it a household name in Asia before the likes of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made the genre a staple for grand romantic epics. Somewhat more restrained and tame when compared to his earlier wuxia films, Hark nonetheless delivers an unpretentious, hyper-kinetic dose of martial arts action while injecting some elements of mystery and investigation with the real -life character Di Renjie. Di is a real life Tang dynasty official whose fictionalized adventures may have made him one of the inspirations for “Sherlock Holmes“.
Two mysterious murders are linked to two amulets that the victims moved before they burned to a crisp under the morning sun. The amulets were inside a gigantic Buddha statue meant to commemorate the coronation of Empress Wu (marvelously portrayed by Carina Lau), the first female ruler of China. In theory, the spontaneous human combustion is caused by divine intervention and this sparks the interest of the Empress. She then orders the release of Detective Dee (Andy Lau) who had been imprisoned for questioning her regency some years before to solve the mystery under the advisement of a sorcerer called Lu Li who speaks through a reindeer. Dee accepts the assignment as the empress’ top aide Dongguan Jing’er (pretty Li Bing Bing) joins the investigation along with an albino judicial officer, Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) in order to solve the mystery before the coronation. Dee must sort through the empress’ old enemies and allies to find the answers, but the more answers he uncovers, more questions are asked as Dee himself may have to take look at his own past…can Dee solve the mystery before he himself falls victim to spontaneous human combustion?
At first look, the film appears to be a mystery but in all actuality, “Phantom Flame” is all about Chinese wuxia and action sequences. There is a mystery but it isn’t so much as who did what, but rather as to how and why? Hark does manage to capture my attention as to how and what is causing this mysterious events. It is actually a confrontation of superstition and scientific theory as Dee struggles to use his practical savvy to get to the bottom of it all. The film also asks the questions as to how Dee himself seems to have been involved and why was he imprisoned before. The film revolves around the investigation process as Dee goes through every clue while bouncing around walls fighting assassins, shape-shifters and henchmen using high-flying kung fu that demands a suspension of disbelief amid all the gaping plot holes. Yes, the film’s story isn’t exactly polished, but it is all part of the Tsui Hark charm and the film does walk the line pretty well.
Those who are familiar with the Tsui Hark style in direction know that he uses fast-paced sequences, deliberate overlapping dialogue, he keeps the shots tight and quick as to generate a feeling of being almost out of breath. It is all effective to be sure, as Hark is on familiar ground when he uses his classic retro style. Hark has the talent to pull off an over-the-top outrageous scene since he makes it seem so natural and inventive despite some scenes are dangerously close to becoming silly (example: the scene where a coroner is asked to recite the details loudly) and yet it is subtly humorous.
As for the action scenes themselves, it carries the usual Tsui Hark signature reminiscent of “Wong Fei-Hung” that has the usual tactical wire work to make thing feel really cool. The fight choreography by Sammo Hung is nice to look at and the execution nearly flawless; the usual quick editing tricks work well in this type of film and Hark makes use of it seamlessly. The set designs and effects are CGI generated, but it maintained that classic Tsui Hark look. There are some 80’s excesses, but not so much as they hampered the film. Six-armed musicians, the phantom bazaar, cannibals, and the scene in the caves appeared lifted from Greek myth, it is all fun from the Tsui Hark roots--and the less time you think about it, the more entertaining it is.
The performances are a big plus. Carina Lau has the commanding presence that required her role as the wiley empress and Li Bing Bing is charming as her strongwoman. There are hints of romance between her character and Andy Lau’s but it was quickly put on the back burner in favor of the investigation. Tony Leung Ka-Fai makes for a good mysterious foreman and his links to Dee’s past was a welcome twist. Hark even finds a spot for Teddy Robin, one of his oldest collaborators in the past. AndY Lau does make for an iconic Dee; but there were times that his development should’ve been better. There are some areas in the script that appeared spotty, but Hark manages to keep a lid on them through Dee’s all-pervading presence.
“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” does have some political overtones and I did feel Tsui Hark was preaching in some ways in the film’s final scene (that is similar to Jet Li‘s “Hero”). The film has some flaws but I am willing to look past those flaws since it is just refreshing to see Tsui Hark return to his roots; he knows how to keep his viewers’ attention through escapist entertainment. Tsui Hark is a master of this type of filmmaking albeit it does not always work for him (see “Missing“ and “All About Women“). “Detective Dee” is just a breath of fresh air, it is an action-adventure fantasy ride that exudes a lot of fun. Be happy, Tsui Hark fans, this has all his fingerprints all over this creation.
A return to classic wuxia films that carries the Tsui Hark signature; namely action, high flying kung fu, charming storyline and likeable characters. Tsui Hark is back and Andy Lau is terrific as Detective Dee! Carina Lau almost steals the show with her presence though..