Home > Film > Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

There’s a delicious moment when I now start thinking about the old “coals to Newcastle” idiom. As a denizen of the named city, I tip my hat to the wiseacres who caught the irony of trade cycles. Indirectly, they were talking about me. I grew up surrounded by coal mines, with pit-head winding gear and spoil-heaps dotting the landscape, but never really thought about the product. I just accepted half my local community worked in the shipyards, and the other half emerged blackened and blinking into the light when the shifts ended. One of these days, I will go back, but it will be in sadness. The shipyards are mostly gone, redeveloped for housing. The pits have been closed for decades — Newcastle really does import its coal these days.

Back in the 1960s, I remember discovering Robert Van Gulik’s stories about Judge Dee. This was one of the early efforts at locating the traditional Golden Age detective story in a different era. In this case, he borrowed from an original Chinese source to locate an investigating magistrate in seventh century China. Based on the real-world character Di Renji, Van Gulik produced a series of stories, rather wooden by modern standards, in which our hero solves crimes and punishes the guilty.

Now we fast-forward to modern times with a film made in China by a Hong Kong director featuring the same “Detective” Dee. Set in about 690 AD, our hero is recalled to investigate two deaths which threaten to interfere with the imminent ascension to the Imperial throne of Wu Zetian. She has been acting as Regent and now assumes the right to become Empress. This completes the circle with a Chinese hero reclaimed from the West and now glorified in film by director Tsui Hark.

As a film about a famous detective, the script had better deliver a good mystery for him to solve. That’s why we pay the price of admission. On this criterion, I’m pleased to report the core puzzle is well constructed. Despite being overlaid with the obvious implausibility of supernatural and fantasy elements, the practicality of the who, the how and the why are elegantly conceived. As is always the case, the pool of suspects is whittled down, and we are soon left with only one real prospect for the villain, but there’s a coherence, if not always logic, to the investigation.

Deng Chao, Li Bingbing, Tsui Hark, Carina Lau and Andy Lau at the 67th Venice Film Festival

I also got what I wanted in Andy Lau’s portrayal of Detective Dee. He’s quietly determined and represents the best traditions of the analytical detective by thinking his way through to the solution of the problems. In this historical context, he’s a political realist and obsessional in his drive to arrive at what he considers the best outcome for the country. Naturally, when thinking fails, he can fight as well. In this, I forgive the supernatural power of his mace of office. Every martial arts expert must have a magic weapon of some kind, and this is understated while remaining highly effective. As to the rest of the primary players, Chao Deng is wonderful as the albino investigator, blending undoubted intelligence and some political guile with a genuinely creepy air of ruthlessness, being prepared to torture a key witness to the first death played by Tony Leung Ka Fai. Bingbing Li is nicely caught in the middle of the continuing conflict between Dee and the woman waiting to be Empress. While Carina Lau shows enough vulnerability as the aspirant Empress to be all-too-convincing. She is only doing what is necessary for the long-term prosperity of the Empire.

At its heart, this is a superb piece of film-making with the first forty-five minutes representing the highest possible standards in every respect. It’s a wonderful balance between a possible supernatural threat set in an environment that is a highly original metaphor for the Tang Empire. There’s a semi-rational explanation for the manner of the deaths — a form of internal combustion induced by phosphorus from an unlikely source — and we are used to the excesses of physical performance achievable by kung fu exponents. All this creates a rich texture for the story-telling. As a setting, the dominant statue of the Empress-to-be, rising in the forefront of the port and overlooking the palace, is a striking image. It’s a form of deification, recognising the transformation of a mere Regent into the Empress with absolute authority. The price paid by a woman fighting her way to the top of the political heap, has been many bodies. Everyone in the way is expendable. It’s therefore not surprising that, as the sun rises and sets, her shadow should fall across the capital city and the court where her political rivals plot her downfall.

But when we get into the second half of the film, the fantasy starts to get in the way. We have an unnecessary kung fu skill of disguise but, far more significantly, the fighting loses its focus when we go down into the Phantom Market and beyond.

Sammo Hung was responsible for the fight choreography which, in the early sequences is very good, as you would expect from an artist with vast experience on both sides of the camera. But it’s when we come to the extended wire work that things somewhat fall apart. There comes a point when people swinging from one side of a set to another becomes rather silly and, unfortunately, this point is reached in this film. In an attempt to cover up the strangeness of the emerging sequences, the scenes are cut togeher in an incoherent way. We are not allowed to watch an emerging battle of skillful martial artists. We simply see people vaguely interacting and possibly chasing each other, but the overall effect in the second half is immensely disappointing. In this, I put the blame squarely on Tsui Hark’s shoulders. What was spectacular in the innocent days of Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, has become overstylised and pretentious to modern audiences as the technical side of special effects and stunt work has developed. It’s clear many sequences are included simply because they can now be shot without looking too amateurish. This is hasty and overambitious. A creative mind wanting to push forward, but not prepared to wait for technology to catch up.

Although the end achieves a kind a steampunk magnificence and, to some extent, rescues the overegged fighting and chase sequences between Dee and the villain, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. The story is good. The cast are all excellent. What a shame the essential element of kung fu fails to deliver. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeing. Whatever its failings in the second half, the director’s intention and over-the-top style are engaging even though flawed. It’s not in his nature to be comfortable with greater realism in the fighting. A shame really. A little more conservatism would have transformed a merely good film into an excellent film.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

  1. May 29, 2013 at 8:52 am

    I love Li Bingbing

  1. October 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm

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