Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

A kitchen-sink kick in the pants, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame keeps so many plates spinning at once that you don’t really mind that a few of them are pretty wobbly.

Unlike other recent imaginings of Chinese history, like Red Cliff or Curse of the Golden Flower, Detective Dee has no delusions of grandeur, just a bedrock appreciation of spectacle, a love of martial arts, and an irreverent sense of humor. That humor lightens things up right from the start, as the opening voiceover sets up the situation (China’s first female emperor is about to be inaugurated into office and her many enemies, who think no woman is fit for the job, are plotting against her) in the formal diction of historical credit sequences everywhere and then ends with a flippant: “All hell was about to break loose.”

And that may be an understatement.

The action sequences are directed by the great Sammo Hung Kam-bo, who directed the action on the Ip Man movies and Ashes of Time and assisted on Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, among many others. The half-parkour, half-martial arts wire fighting that predominates here has been done better – including on some of Sammo’s other films – but it’s still plenty fun to watch here, especially in a fight over water that starts with a rain of telephone-pole-sized logs. Even when they’re not fighting, the main actors move with a gymnastic fluidity that’s a beautiful sight in itself.

So are the elaborate costumes and monumental sets, which the camera often gazes up at or down on or lingers over, inviting us to stare. And what is there to gawp at? A giant Buddha statue anchored by an 82-yard-high metal pole, magical deer that can talk, killer beetles, a noble albino, and that mystery of the title, which the empress hires our man Detective Dee (the always intense Andy Lau, playing straight man to the rest of the cast) to unravel: Why are so many people, most of them key ministers of hers, spontaneously combusting in broad daylight? (Those talking deer may look laughably fake, but director Tsui Hark has an excellent thing with the burning effect, and he knows it: We see several people and a songbird go up in smoke, and it never gets old.)

There’s also the excellent cast, starting with Lau but also including Richard Ng, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Carina Lau. And, as Joe Bob Briggs might point out, there’s all that kung fu, including woman warrior fu, blind beggar fu, even magic deer fu. (Though seriously, dude, we’re supposed to think you’re tough because you can beat up a bunch of deer?)

Like the empress, Dee is a real historical figure, though it’s probably safe to assume that the real guy couldn’t defeat several enemies at once in hand-to-hand combat, in part by leaping about like a giant (wire-assisted) frog. He’s portrayed here as a pragmatist who doesn't believe in magic or divine intervention, but keeps looking for the rational or mechanical explanation for all the apparently supernatural things he keeps encountering – and finds them. There’s even the hint of a theme there about this period maybe being the beginning of the modern age in China, what with the first stirrings of real empowerment for women, the amazing advances in technology, and the rise of rationalism.

But Tsui isn’t really interested in pursuing that sort of thing. He’d much rather play around with who’s doing what to whom in a death-match power struggle that involves constantly shifting identities and allegiances. And if some of those twists and turns get a little confusing at times, you can always just sit back and luxuriate in the movie’s visual pleasures.

Written for The L Magazine

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