Di Renjie Zhi Tongtian Diguo (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) (Hark Tsui, 2010)
One of the things that many of my movie-buff friends simply don’t get about me is my lack of patience for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie I have referred to consistently as Crouching Tiger, Over Hyped for almost fifteen years now. It’s just another wire-fu movie, no worse and certainly no better than any hundred of its contemporaries. Given that, and given the impeccable reputation of director Hark Tsui, I did the same thing I do with those horrid little cakes that are ubiquitous at American restaurants of the Chinese buffet variety: I figured I would give Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame a go to see if I had warmed to the overhyped-wire-fu-movie genre at all since 1999. The somewhat predictable answer, just as it is with those sticky, sandy attempts at chocolate cake, is “no”.
There has only ever been a single Chinese empress, Tse-tian Wu. She became ruler in 690CE (Wikipedia, amusingly, notes that the date was 16 October; take that with as much salt as necessary given how many times the calendar has changed in the ensuing thirteen hundred years and change), and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame takes place around her coronation. She is played here by 2046‘s Carina Lau as a schemer, a nasty wench who would stop at nothing to gain the throne, and in fact, as we open, Detective Dee himself (Infernal Affairs‘ Andy Lau) is interred in a hard-labor camp for having fomented a rebellion against her last attempt to take the throne. (Whether Tse-tian Wu was actually like this is probably anyone’s guess, but it struck me as cheap plot-advancement posturing—especially towards the end, which is all I can say about that without getting spoily, but it’s really obvious in the final sequence.) To commemorate the blessed event, Wu is having a massive statue of the Buddha built within sight of the Imperial Palace. The opening sequence, which takes the viewer on an aerial tour through the construction, is more majestic than all of the movie’s wire-fu scenes combined. In any case, we, the viewers, journey through the statue with an inspector as the movie opens—but when he gets to the top, he seems to spontaneously combust. This happens to a few more folks before the soon-to-be-Empress gives the order to free Detective Dee, who seems to be the only person in China (and let’s remember China was a lot smaller before Wu came to power…so that’s actually possible) who can figure out what in the world is going on. However, breaking him out of prison may not be as easy as it looks, sine the bad guys already knew that was coming and got there first…
There is a good deal to like about this movie, I have to admit. Some of the camerawork is stunning, especially during that opening sequence, and Andy Lau may be playing a caricature of a stereotype, but he does it extremely well, the way he does everything I’ve ever seen him do on a screen. Some of the minor characters are priceless—they’re better than the main characters, really. On the other hand, well, you can’t get away from the fact that the entire plot is nothing more than a device to stitch together Sammo Hung’s huge wire-fu battles. All well and good if you like that sort of thing.
If you’ve nothing better to do on a Saturday night… else, you can safely avoid. **