Monday, April 30, 2012

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I love when a whole bunch of different genres get mashed together into something strange and new. I love it more when it works, but I still appreciate the attempt when it doesn't. Tsui Hark's film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a historical fantasy murder mystery kung fu adventure movie, and for the most part, it clicks.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is set in 7th Century China, during the reign of the controversial first female Emperor. A massive statue of the Buddha is being built in preparation for her coronation. But when an official visiting the construction site spontaneously combusts, Detective Dee is called in to use his deductive reasoning to solve the mystery. We then follow him on his mission, and we see fantastical cities under cities, completely hidden from the sun, talking deer Gods, and people who can change their appearance via acupuncture pressure points.

Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, a million billion billion other movies) portrays "Detective Dee", a fictionalized version of a real historical figure. He's a bit of a Sherlock Holmes type, well ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. When we meet him, he's been imprisoned for eight years for opposing the rule of the Empress that he is enlisted to help. I thought that aspect was interesting, his willingness to help a ruler he ideologically opposes for the good of China. In a way, it kind of reminded me of D'Artagnan of the Three Musketeers fighting so hard to protect the Queen's honor, even though he knows she's been sleeping around on the king. Does that make sense? Maybe just in my head.

My favorite character was Jing-er, played by Li Bing Bing. She acts as the Empress' right hand, and is sent to keep an eye on Dee. Her weapon of choice is a whip, and she's all sorts of awesome, and you're not quite sure where her loyalties lie.

As a whole, Detective Dee is an entertaining fantasy adventure with an interesting engaging mystery. I thought it would be a stretch to have a skeptical Holmes-ian character integrated into a world full of Chinese mysticism, but the mysticism is accepted as fact in the context of the movie and is all kind of taken in stride by the characters, and it actually works rather well.

The one element in the genre mish-mash that didn't really come together for me was the Kung Fu. Pretty surprising, right? There are some fun sequences and fights, but the way they were shot felt very Western to me. So much of it was done in tight close-up, with more cutting than is necessary. The best martial arts scenes in movies are shot in a way that we can see the fighters' whole bodies at work. If it's just patched together in editing, it's far less impressive.

Besides that aspect, though, the action sequences are all a lot of fun. They just feel more Hollywood than Hong Kong. Overall, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an interesting and original piece of popcorn moviemaking, and totally worth a watch.

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