Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Film review by: Witney Seibold


When I heard the English language title of Tsui Hark‘s new special effects extravaganza, I was in. And while Tsui Hark doesn’t quite have the slick chops of Steven Spielberg, a director he’s often compared to, there is still an epic spectacle and Spielbergian pulp enjoyment to “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Like many kung-fu flicks before it, it can dip unfortunately into arch, artificial seriousness, and does, perhaps, have too many dimly-lit, smoky scenes of slow-motion killing, but, overall, it’s an energetic and complicated fantasy mystery that will potentially be attractive to people other than die-hard kung-fu aficionados. Here’s a quick litmus test. When I mentioned Tsui Hark, did you know who I was talking about?


The film takes place in AD 689, right before the coronation of Empress Wu (Karina Lau), the only female to ever be empress of China. In her honor, a 66-year-tall statue of Siddhartha has been constructed outside the temple. Empress Wu is a tough cookie, and is protected by the strong and steely Jing-er (Bingbing Li), who can fight better than most men with her whip. There is a sudden outbreak of spontaneous human combustion in the kingdom. I’ll repeat that. There is a sudden outbreak of spontaneous human combustion in the kingdom. That gets a few weirdness points from me immediately. When the empress usual detective Pei (Chao Deng) is unable to uncover anything abou the cause of these mysterious fires, she frees an old policeman rival from his life-sentence in a remote prison, and hires him as a detective.


This is Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a charismatic and observant detective along the lines of Hercule Poirot. He is a bit peculiar, and he only ever fights with a mace, that can crack his enemies’ weapons. Dee teams up with Jing-er and Pei, and they uncover some strange mysteries along the way. They find poisonous bugs, thought to be extinct, a talking deer, steel living puppet warriors, a mysterious Infinity Monestary overseen by an assassin called The Chaplain, and a filthy magical hermit living in The Phantom Bazaar deep below the surface of the Earth. Thanks to some sideways translations of the English subtitles, The Phantom Bazaar is described gravely as “a spooky pandemonium.” I love that.


While the fight scenes (choreographed by kung-fu legend Sammo Hung) are a bit choppy, and perhaps a bit too infrequent for the more wiggly of the kung-fu fans, there is still a weird sense of adventurous childlike awe throughout “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.” Like Tsui Hark had read his ancient Chinese mythology at the same time he was reading old pulp novels, while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was playing in the background. There is a beautiful incidental magic to the film that usually annoys me in Western films, but feels natural and fun in this context.


It can’t compete with the likes of Spielberg’s best, but it does have a similar tone that I enjoyed. It’s all too frequent that action/adventure films with magic and wonder are, well, kind of lacking actual magic and wonder. “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” may not be high adventure, but it’s a slick and enjoyable period mystery that we Americans rarely get to see.


Published in: on June 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm  Comments (2)  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. 66-year tall, eh?

  2. nice movie but want to know the name of that poisonous bug used in th film

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: