Venice (In Competition) – Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame is Tsui Hark's entry into the main competition, a whodunnit featuring Chinese historical characters, wire work and fantasy elements. But, asks Emma Rowley, does it live up to its epic premise?
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's new film will not perhaps silence the critics at home who have criticised him as a sell-out for abandoning his less accessible New Wave roots in favour of presiding in recent years over effects-heavy blockbusters. But Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame effectively reimagines a classic Chinese story for the age of CGI, working traditional characters and situations into a fast-paced action plot; a form of storytelling for which Hark is well-known, having previously resurrected traditional themes and in popular films which revived obsolete genres (as he did for the conventions of Beijing Opera in his 1986 smash hit Peking Opera Blues).
But the film's ace card is the whodunnit format, which propels the story forward, allowing the inclusion of magic, action set-pieces, and digressions into Chinese history without losing any of its tautness.
Andy Lau plays the film's protagonist, Detective Dee, or Di Renjie. Renjie was an official of the Tang Dynasty, credited with great intelligence and influence with Empress Wu. In the context of this film, Dee is the Sherlock Holmes of 689AD China; a brilliant analyst of behaviour and a perceptive investigator. Like the Holmes of Robert Downey Jr's recent interpretation, he's also a skilled fighter. Renjie is well-known to the Chinese, but not in this incarnation. The filmmakers chose to move away from the established depiction of the figure and remould him into a young, handsome man of action. While this always seems like a bit of a crass, commercial decision, in this instance it works very well, with Lau putting in an impressive and charismatic performance.
Among other historical characters featured in the film is Li Bingbing's Jing-Er, the Empress' right-hand woman, charged by her to assist Dee. Jing-Er is loosely based on Shangguan Wan'er, one of the most celebrated female poets and politicians of the Tang Dynasty, although Hark decided once again to make significant changes to the historical figure. You will not be surprised to hear then, that she is young, beautiful and a kick-ass martial arts expert.
For the coronation ceremony of Empress Wu, city officials are building a giant honorary Buddha sixty-seven stories high. During a tour of the almost-complete monument for a visiting ambassador, when the group reaches the viewing platform at the top one of the organisers begins sweating and experiencing eye-bulging pain. Moments later, he has burnt away to ashes – but disturbingly, from the inside out. When a second functionary working on the building project dies in the same way; this time in front of the Empress' court while he is riding to tell her the news, Wu suspects a plot to spoil her coronation. On the advice of a magical, talking deer (just go with it) who visits the court, she orders her loyal right-hand-woman Jing-Er to release Detective Dee from the prison where he has been incarcerated for protesting against her regency.
From this point on, Dee and Jing-Er must follow a trail of clues while thwarting the assassins determined to stop their investigation. They are led first to the cavernous kingdom below the city's foundations to hunt out the ex-Royal physician Donkey Wang (a name that elicited much amusement, not least from me) to find out what he knows about the odd creatures known as fire turtles. But the sinister figure of the red-robed Chaplain haunts them and Dee realises he must disturb the sanctity of the Infinite Monastery to confront him – an act that is punishable by death. Along the way, there are suspects aplenty, red herrings, disguises and double-bluffs.
There is also plenty of martial arts action, with weapon battles and large amounts of wire work. It's all sharply choreographed by Sammo Hung, who Hark chose as he wanted the sequences to be reminiscent of Bruce Lee (here's one for the fact fans: Sammo Hung starred in Bruce Lee's 1973 Enter The Dragon; he was the Shaolin student Bruce squares up to at the start of the film).
Some of the CGI effects are unconvincing, and there's a misstep towards the end (I maintain that no-one wants to see a man fight deer) but altogether Detective Dee and The Phantom Flame is a colourful, entertaining spectacle.
Rating on a scale of 5 cases of spontaneous combustion: 3
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Hark Tsui
Screenplay by: Kuo-fu Chen
Cast: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Lu Yao
Running time: 122 minutes