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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Di Renjie: Tong tian di guo

China 2010

Mystery, Crime, Action

Tsui Hark

Andy Lau
Li Bingbing
Deng Chao
Carina Lau
Tony Leung Ka-Fai
Richard Ng
Teddy Robin
Yao Lu
Liu Jinshan

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Story: During the 7th century the first empress is about to ascend to the Chinese throne. Empress Wu (Carina Lau) has ordered a giant statue to be build for her official coronation. The construction is planned by Zhong (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and everything seems to go according to plan until a high-ranking official removes two amulets of protection and after that is burned to ashes from within by a mysterious flame. When another person dies exactly the same way and the judicial officer Pei (Deng Chao) still finds himself facing a mystery, the empress decides to pardon former detective Dee (Andy Lau) and set him on solving the case. Eight years ago Dee started a revolt against the empress, who at that time took over governance in place of a prince still too young to deal with this task. Although Dee has been recommended by the royal wizard she doesn't trust him and therefore sends her most loyal subject Jing'er (Li Bingbing) to help him. While there are some superstitious assumptions concerning the phantom flame Dee focuses on who might have an interest to see the empress dethroned.

Review: Director Tsui Hark has tried his hand at fantasy stories quite a few times. This time he adds a little bit of Sherlock Holmes to his visionary pictures. When it comes to realizing his ideas he can more and more rely on computergenerated special effects, so that there are almost no limits to his imagination. But that alone doesn't make a good movie. As so many others Tsui makes the mistake to neglect the structural composition of his story. This is even the more irritating as the story is actually quite good and offers a few surprising twists. Were the events on screen actually interlocked in a meaningful manner and not dominated by numerous chance happenings the positive reviews of so many critics would in fact be justified.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Film Screenshot 11

But there isn't all fine and dandy in "Detective Dee". A problem I often find myself to have with Tsui Hark, and his "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" is proving this once more, is that he in fact has a lot of good ideas and truely would be a revolutionist of the fantasy genre if he wouldn't be completely absorbed by his ideas. Often enough you get some rather unmotivated scenes which make you realize that the director actually had something in mind when shooting them, but you just can't make out what it was. Those scenes can be found in "Detective Dee" as well, athough they are smaller in numbers than in other works of his. In fact the movie attempts to be more of a wuxia story with thriller elements, at times it even aims at being realistic in its approach, but acupuncture needles that alter your facial features, individuals that burn from within or puppet masters that control odd mechanical beings - this is still fantasy!

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Film Screenshot 12

Some of what's going on also isn't motivated by the story, this especially concerns Jing'er and her scene towards the end which makes you wonder why things happen the way they do and how they are related to the rest. At least Detective Dee is someone who relies on his observational skills and is able to draw the right conclusions. As if Sherlock Holmes were transfered to the 7th century of China. On a side note: the protagonist is strongly based on the character Judge Di from a novel of the 18th century which was translated from Chinese into English by Robert van Gulik who afterwards wrote a whole series of books revolving around the detective himself. Investigations in ancient China - there certainly lies great potential in this. Unfortunately, it wasn't fully made us of after all.

You can't do much wrong with Andy Lau ("Shaolin", "The Warlords") in the lead, but the supporting actors are well cast, too. Carina Lau ("Let the Bullets Fly") depicts an unusual villain as the first Chinese empress as she maybe isn't one in the end. Deng Chao ("The Four") and Li Bingbing ("Triple Tap") embody two inscrutable characters that may aid detective Dee, but you can't be sure whether they may change sides the next opportunity they get or not - or when they do. There is also Tony Leung Ka-Fai ("Double Vision") to be seen in a supporting role. The cast contributes a lot to the fantasy flick being appealing even in the more disjointed parts.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Film Screenshot 13

It would have been nice had "Detective Dee" carved out its qualities of the story a little more by linking individual scenes in a more seamless manner. Technically there are a lot of CGI effects, but as not to be expected otherwise they are seldomly truely convincing. This concerns an animated stag as well as a gigantic harbor shown in the background. Yet those not so perfect computer animated pictures manage to give the movie a pretty epic touch which doesn't need to hide behind that of Hollywood productions, particularly since Tsui's pictures are a feast for the eye in respect to the usage of colors. The soundtrack by Peter Kam ("Perhaps Love") also does its share to add to the epic scale. "Detective Dee" is a lot of fun, but it still lacks that certain something, maybe also some heart. Tsui can do better and he has already proven so 17 years ago with his ("Green Snake"). Maybe next time he can continue where he left off back then.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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