Review: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME 狄仁傑之通天帝國 (2010) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 17 October 2010


RATING: 3.5/5

For almost a decade, the once-maverick director Tsui Hark has increasingly lost his creative touch he once known for, especially back in his heydays of '80s and '90s. His so-called "comeback" movies ranging from 2001's THE LEGEND OF ZU, to 2005's SEVEN SWORDS and most recently 2008's MISSING and ALL ABOUT WOMEN were all heavily anticipated but fell short of target. Frankly, his last best movie was 2000's TIME AND TIDE, and his directing effort has never been recovered ever since.

Fortunately, at long last, Tsui Hark has finally made a true comeback and returns to form with this year's much-anticipated DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME. The movie is a vintage Tsui Hark stamped all over the place while breathes a refreshing change of pace to the current trend of wuxia genre by mixing a fascinating blend of Agatha Christie-like detective mystery, historical pulp, Chinese folklore fantasy and exhilarating action set pieces. No doubt this is quite possibly the most inventive Chinese movie blockbuster ever made in a long time.

Set in 689 A.D. on the eve of the coronation of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, the film opens with a bang where a series of bizarre circumstances that caused two high-ranking court officials mysteriously died of spontaneous combustion after being exposed to sunlight. One of the death happened inside the construction of a Towering Buddha, in which the one-armed construction supervisor Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) claims it might caused by some divine intervention. But the relentless albino judicial officer Pei Donglai (Deng Cao) begs to differ, claiming it could have been something else entirely. Soon Empress Wu takes advice from her trusted imperial chaplain (who appears in the shape of a talking deer -- no, I kid you not) and decides to set free of prisoner Dee (Andy Lau), who once an imperial court judge before sentenced for eight years in the jail following from his rebellion. Wu enlists him to investigate the mysterious deaths and hope to solve the case as soon as possible before the coronation takes place. Together with Pei Donglai and Wu's beloved protege, Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), they must race against time to nab the murderer as well as uncover the hidden agenda behind the possible rebellion against the crowning of the very first female emperor in China.

Chen Kuo-Fu and Zhang Jialu's screenplay is no doubt over-convoluted and chock-full of red herrings at each passing moment but there's no denial that such narrative thrust proves to be a blessing in disguise where Tsui manages to make everything as tightly-paced and compulsively watchable without missing a beat. Not only that, Tsui also excels in term of delivering an eye-catching blend of visual imagination that propels this movie -- something we have sorely missed from his touch after all these years -- ranging from elaborate production design by James Chiu (particularly the wildly inventive design of the murky underground city of Phantom Bazaar) to the richly-tailored costumes by Bruce Yu. But the biggest awe-inspiring set piece seen here is none others than Sammo Hung's magnificent art direction for its 80-metre height of the Towering Buddha which cost a hefty $12 million to design and decorate.

Action set pieces, in the meantime, are visually engaging and entertaining enough to sustain the viewers, thanks to Sammo Hung's unique wire-fu choreography. The highlight is of course, the elaborate fight scene in the Phantom Bazaar against the shape-shifting, red-cloaked Chaplain and a band of masked assassins. Aside from the usual gravity-defying fight sequence, each respective characters have their own fighting style and choice of weapons -- Dee's mace which comes with a tuning fork of a device capable to exploit weakness in metal and lead to break the opposition weapons; Shangguan's whip; and Pei Donglai's throwaway war-axe.

The cast are equally top-notch, with Andy Lau excels in a charismatic and engaging role as the titular hero, while both Li Bingbing and Deng Cao shine in their roles with physical aplomb and credible performances. Carina Lau, on the other hand, marks a rare appearance with an unforgettable performance as the ruthless and cold Empress Wu. Not to forget are delightful cameo appearances by Richard Ng and the long-missed Teddy Robin Kwan.

While DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME remains a flawed piece of work -- uneven special effects and sometimes erratic storytelling -- the movie is Tsui's most entertaining effort ever made in a decade. Welcome back.

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