DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME Review:
- I am always on the lookout for interesting new films that fall outside of the mainstream. Here in LA, we re lucky in that regard. There are several fantastic theaters that play all manner of new independent films. In fact, on a given week there are so many interesting indie flicks out there that it's often hard to keep track, to weed out the legitimately great films from the clutter. When it comes to indie flicks, foreign films, etc., I usually try to pay attention to anything that's getting major critical or fan buzz. Still, every so often I stumble on something out of the blue, something that grabs me. Sometimes, a movie that I'd barely heard of just leaps out and demands to be seen. And that is what happened with DETECTIVE DEE. I was flipping through the pages of LA Weekly, pre-Labor Day weekend, and saw a glorious full-page ad for the film that just screamed "kick-ass." The title alone - "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame." I mean, come on - now *that's* a flipping movie title right there. I went online to check out some reviews. I didn't want to spoil too much, but I saw many superlatives being bandied about, and my resolve to see the film was now firm. So my brother and I hit up LA's Landmark theater to see Detective Dee, and apparently, a number of others had been similarly intrigued by the movie's mysterious yet tantalizing marketing. The theater was nearly full as the movie began. And what we saw ... well, it was mind-boggling, eye-popping, and downright strange. But it was wonderfully weird - a circus of Hong-Kong cinema that was historical epic, supernatural fantasy, mystery, and wire-fu martial arts extravaganza all in one. My god.
DETECTIVE DEE is based on a true story from China's past, but it takes history and gives it an over-the-top, fantastical twist. The story takes place way back in 690 AD, when China's first female ruler, Empress Wu Zetian, is about to be annointed. But there is trouble a-brewin' as preparations are put in place for the ceremony. A series of the Empress' loyal subjects appear to spontaneously combust, and theories abound about what happened. Some think there is a plot afoot to ruin the Empress' reign. Others think that the construction of a giant statue on the ceremony grounds is blasphemous and has angered the gods. Others think that food or water consumed by the victims may have been poisoned. So, we have ourselves a mystery, and to solve it, the Empress recruits the one man capable of getting to the bottom of this perplexing puzzle - Detective Dee. Problem is, Dee was a loyalist to the old regime who's been in prison for years. But, Dee is reluctantly recruited, and paired with a team of some of the Empress' most trusted protectors, to figure out the truth behind the mysterious deaths.
The film starts out in more of a straightforward historical epic mode. With sweeping shots of the under-construction ceremonial grounds and the initial setup of the mystery, the movie plays it relatively straight for its first act. Very quickly though, we meet a number of possible suspects, and learn of all sorts of potential motives that various people and factions may have for disrupting the Empress' grand ceremony.
But man, by the halfway point of the movie, things just turn bat$#&% crazy. We get an indicaiton of the craziness to come early on, when the Empress is greeted by a sacred deer -- who talks. But soon enough, Detective Dee's investigation takes him to the Underworld, and he's fighting demons and shape-shifters. And suddenly, the movie takes on an insane,, surrealist bent. Not only does the action shift to crazy wire-fu stuff like you've probably seen in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - but the overall tone of the movie just shifts to full-on psycho. Things start to not quite make sense, characters come and go ... but at some point you just sit back and go with it - which isn't hard, as by mid-movie you're undergoing total sensory assault.
What is consistent throughout the film though is the consistent quality and charisma of the actors. Andy Lau - a notable HK actor who's starred in such films as Infernal Affairs and House of Flying Daggers, plays Dee is like some crazed Honk Kong Sherlock Holmes - part detective, part ladies man, and part kung-fu ass-kicker extraordinaire. Carina Lau, meanwhile, plays the Empress, and is suitably regal and aloof, though she doesn't get a ton to do - not a part of substance comparable to, say, the great Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower. Bingbing Li (what a name ...), however, gets to shine as Jang'r - a female protector and guardian of the Empress who ends up an ally and enemy of Dee (and a potential love interest). Jang'r gets many of the film's most kickass moments - using a variety of crazy weapons to combat her foes. Also quite good is Chao Deng as Pei, a badass albino servant to the Empress who becomes Dee's trusted right-hand-man. Overall, it's a loaded cast of Honk Kong luminaries, and though I'm not super-familiar with some of the names, there are many faces that popped up that looked familiar. And overall, the performances are excellent throughout.
One name that American audiences will know though is Sammo Hung. Hung is not in the film, but he did serve as its action coordinator. Hung's action scenes surprise with their impact and energy. Although there is wire-fu, and though Dee does crazy things like fight a talking deer in mid-air, the action always maintains a somewhat grounded, hard-edged feel. A climactic battle taking place on the wooden skeleton of the in-construction ceremony site is super-epic in size and scope. Overall, the direction by Hark Tsui is pretty damn spectacular, with some gorgeous shots comprised of vivid colors and exotic landscapes.
From what I understand though, Tsui is generally known for quieter, more personal films, and perhaps that's why the overall tone of this movie is so all-over-the-place. The movie veers wildly from slow-paced historical mystery to surrealist martial-arts fantasy. And you're never quite sure to what extent we're supposed to be taking all of this seriously. Sure, Hong Kong films tend to be a bit melodramatic and self-serious, but when Dee has an epic fight with a deer, or when we meet a character known as Donkey Wang (yes, seriously), you're not quite sure what the hell is going on here. Surely, Tsui is doing this with a wink at the audience, right? And yet, despite all of the surrealism and moments of oddball humor, the movie more often than not sticks to melodrama, stubbornly reverting to detective fiction after some balls-out action scene. And by film's end, the characters and plot become something of a jumble (okay, a huge-ass jumble). It's a trip, that's for sure.
I would heartily recommend that any fan of crazy HK cinema check out DETECTIVE DEE if and when they get a chance. It's a frustrating film at times, but it's also absolutely amazing-looking and thoroughly entertaining. Certainly, this is NOT your typical Hollywood epic. No, this is something much weirder, crazier, and most definitely worth giving a look.
My Grade: B+