October 1, 2011

Movie Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The other week, as I was scanning my usual theaters for show times I stumbled across Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Like most of you, I had no idea what this was, it was also the sort of thing I always check a few theaters for show times. You know, besides checking for the schedule of thebig releases, I like to see if there are any smaller, indie, foreign movie types within my travel radius. This one looked like it fit the bill. Still, I had to check a little more as for all I knew it could be some lame family movie that rips off Harry Potter's naming motif (I know it is not new with Potter, but they used it a lot).

A little link clicking reveals that the film hails from China, was directed by Tsui Hark, and counts Andy Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai among its stars. Well, consider me sold. Good or bad, this was surely a film I should make a point of seeing. It is one of those things that movie fans need to do. You know, support releases like this so that we can possibly, hopefully get more of them.

I am sure you are wondering what this movie is about. Allow me to do my best to enlighten you, if not just a little bit.

The film is a period piece set during the build up to the coronation of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first and only ever female ruler of China. As a team of workers work feverishly to complete a gigantic Buddha statue in time for the coronation, an official burns up inside the structure, leaving behind nothing but ash. Shortly thereafter, there is another victim.

No one can figure out what it is exactly what is causing the spontaneous combustion, save to say it appears to be starting on the inside and works its way out. Rather frightening, if you ask me. The soon to be Empress calls for Detective Dee (Andy Lau) be brought onto the case. The problem is that Dee was imprisoned some years before for leading an uprising against Wu. Well, it should be pretty obvious that he is freed and brought onto the case.

The story is pretty interesting, if a little complicated. We follow Dee as he follows the clues, with the aid of straitlaced Shangguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li), and tracks down a number of leads and possibilities, including misdirections and red herrings. This is not necessarily a problem, but the way it plays out, it just seems like a bit much. Still, I was happy to go along for the ride, I just found I did not like it as much as I had hoped.

This is not to say this is a bad movie by any stretch. It is just that while the movie is an entertaining ride and has some nicely choreographed fight sequences the flow is just a little much. Basically, there are too many moving parts which leaves too much to resolve and ultimately an unsatisfying conclusion.

Still, despite deficiencies in storytelling, Andy Lu and Tony Leung Ka Fai (in a smaller role) turn in solid performances. I particularly like Lau, he has a great screen presence and brings an instant credibility to Detective Dee. I also enjoyed Bingbing Li, whom I do not recall seeing before. She has a certain stoicism with underlying determination that makes her one of the more entertaining characters.

Based on the way the movie flows from start to finish, I would not be surprised if their are further films planned based around the character. He is an actual historical character and there are likely other tales to tell, just like with Wong Fei Hung.

This is a movie worth spending some time with. It has action, comedy, drama, and thrills. Sure some effects may be a bit spotty and the story a touch overcrowded, but it is still entertaining.


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