Review: ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’

"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is one of Tsui Hark's better movies in quite a long time."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Chinese director Tsui Hark is probably best known to American audiences for his few American films: the sub-sub-par Jean-Claude Van Damme action “comedies” Double Team and Knock-Off. This, officially, is sad. Like fellow superb Chinese filmmakers John Woo and Ringo Lam (albeit to a lesser extent, Ringo Lam) Tsui Hark found little success in America and was relegated to disappointingly cut-rate projects that may have discouraged potential fans from discovering his earlier, better work like Once Upon a Time in China 1 and 2. His latest film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is one of his better movies in quite a long time and, with a merciful (though limited) release in America this week, stands a far better chance of introducing new audiences to his work. It’s an inventive, entertaining romp through the Tang dynasty.

The story takes place shortly before the inauguration of Empress Wu Zaetian (played by 2046’s Carina Lau) in A.D. 690. As the first female emperor in Chinese history, her ascension is met with borderline treasonous scrutiny, which crosses that border completely when members of her court are murdered under mysterious circumstances. They spontaneously combust, you see, forcing the soon-to-be Empress to seek the aid of Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a former superstar lawman now serving time for speaking out against Wu Zaetian’s rise to power. Detective Dee, a real-life figure now immortalized in books and film, is a larger than life character with a mind like a whip and kung fu mastery to match, although I don’t recall him ever using one. (Dee’s weapon of choice is a club that twirls and exploits weaknesses in his enemy’s swords, which is pretty cool.) His adventures take him to unusual locales, like a forest filled with homicidal deer and a literally underground city inhabited by shapeshifting alchemists with names like “Donkey Wang,” which is bound to get a chuckle from American audiences. This might not be entirely unintentional: when someone wonders which “Donkey Wang” Dee is looking for, the answer is “the one with the scabies.”


Although not strictly speaking a pure martial arts film, the action was nevertheless choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, who gives the many action sequences some superior choreography. But this is Tsui Hark’s film and he’s in his full-on Spielberg mode, fueling his tale with special effects – many of them quite impressive – and broadly stroked heroes who bicker memorably, have great chemistry, die honorably, and can fly, transform and other magical feats as well. Andy Lau is at his charming best and overall the film is a breezy feast for the senses that’s as entertaining as it is slightly forgettable. But that's nobody's fault but the Pacific Ocean's

The story is a bit complicated, you see, and vaguely reminiscent of the excellent French sci-fi detective period piece Vidocq (awkwardly renamed Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq in America), although I may be the only one distracted by that. But Detective Dee also relies heavily on Chinese history that many in this country, including myself, may be only vaguely familiar with (at best). As such, the many twists and turns make the film feel like it’s merely grinding its gears as the story turns elaborate. This is not the fault of the film, per se, since it’s doing a fine job of exactly what it set out to do, but it’s not always friendly to those of us who could use some Cliff’s Notes to follow along. As such I find the details of the plot slowly slipping away as I try to recall them. I remember having a lot of fun at the time, but I suspect it would take multiple viewings to grasp the finer plot points of Detective Dee.

But regardless, Detective Dee is a brisk adventure with grand set pieces and a show-stopping finale. If you have any interest whatsoever in Chinese blockbuster filmmaking it’s definitely worth seeking out in its limited release this weekend. It doesn’t transition perfectly to American audiences, but it’s mighty entertaining anyway and a fine film from Tsui Hark, who is now forgiven for Double Team. As for Knock-Off, well… some scars just run deep.