When the foreman on a momentous folly spontaneously combusts, a soon-to-be-crowned empress, Wu (Carina Lau), recalls a political enemy from exile. Detective Dee (Andy Lau) may be implacably opposed to her rule, but if anyone can solve the murder, lift a curse and ensure her coronation takes place, it’s Dee.
I’m a huge fan of Tsui Hark’s work. He makes films that blend insane spectacle with coherent plots. And that’s rarer than you might think. The spectacle in Detective Dee is jaw-dropping: the opening sequences in a giant half-built statue of Buddha that would dwarf London’s Shard indicate we’re in a steampunk version of the Tang dynasty.
(Well, technically this predates the steam age, but the concept of old technology blown up to SF proportions is still present. Bamboopunk, anyone?)
In this spectacular mileiu the story unfolds as a blend of detection, mysticism and martial arts action, the latter helped by Sammo Hung’s kinetic choreography. It’s a historical blockbuster, basically, as loosely connected to real history and as devoted to action and spectacle as any major Hollywood release, but with a very different cultural basis.
To an outsider, a lack of cultural grounding make some elements of the story hard to follow, especially in terms of what is and is not possible in the fantasy-tinged past of the story. It’s difficult to entirely grasp a murder mystery story where some forms of superhuman powers are considered entirely normal and others are impossible, and therefore evidence of fakery.
There’s also the obligatory dose of Chinese nationalism in terms of an underlying theme of putting the greater good of the nation above justice or freedom for individuals which hits a slightly sour note.
These issues aside, ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’ is a thoroughly entertaining action mystery with some great settings and set-pieces. At the heart of the story is a character with great potential – Detective Dee is smart, thoughtful and compelling, with Andy Lau delivering a nuanced and charismatic performance. Hopefully this is just the first of Detective Dee’s big screen adventures.