Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Chen Kuofu
Producer: Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Peggy Lee
Cast: Andy Lau Tak Wah, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Carina Lau Kar Ling, Li Bing Bing, Deng Chao, Richard Ng Yiu Hon, Du Yiheng, Yao Lu, Teddy Robin Kwan
Running Time: 123 min.
As a longtime Tsui Hark fan, it’s great to see the master director return with a film that’s easier for audiences to latch on to. “Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” has been billed as ‘Sherlock Holmes with martial arts,’ the kind of hook that your average Western viewer can wrap their head around and one that looks good slapped on the cover of a DVD.
This is a movie that travels better than, say, Hark’s failed multi-part epic “Seven Swords.” And “Dee” has managed to carve out a decently-sized fanbase online: check out IMDB and you’ll see that this movie routinely scores 8 or 9’s from reviewers. As a result, I expected to be quite taken with “Dee.” To be honest it left me strangely underwhelmed.
With “Dee,” we find Tsui Hark making the same mistakes he’s been making for the past ten years. The film is plagued with an impenetrable plot, an overabundance of wire fu, shoddy special FX work, and a laborious runtime. Hark seems out of touch with his audience. In an era when martial arts filmmakers are striving for authenticity and a sense of realism in their works, he continues to retreat into candy-colored CG worlds. Compared to recent Hong Kong films like “Wu Xia” or “Bodyguards & Assassins,” “Detective Dee” feels like it’s from another movie industry entirely.
“Detective Dee” opens in the year 690 A.D., when China’s first Empress was ascending the throne. Tsui Hark gives us a smidgen of historical context for the story that’s about to play out and then dives right into the thick of things. As a Westerner not familiar with the real life figure of Detective Dee (AKA Di Renjie) or this particular era of Chinese history, it’s easy to feel lost. Just who is Dee? We know he’s been in prison for eight years due to political dissidence but his life before then is a mystery to us. Detective Dee is a figure already popularized by literature, sure, but his background, characteristics, and personal history are barely even hinted at in this movie.
Alright, so what if you want to say ‘forget the plot’ and try to enjoy “Detective Dee” as a piece of popcorn entertainment? Even then, “Phantom Flame” is kind of a mess. The fight scenes are random snapshots of action, quickly cut and relying heavily on wires. Tsui Hark also seems to be employing the same special effects studio he used back in 2001’s “Zu Warriors” – and it looks like they’re using the same computer rigs they had back then. The special effects in “Dee” are horribly dated, whether it’s Andy Lau fighting a herd of CGI deer (I wish I was making that up) or Li Bingbing’s red cloak morphing into a blur across screen. It doesn’t take long for all the CGI to become overkill.
It’s great that most of the fan community has embraced “Dee” since Hark deserves to continue making movies. There are enough creative flourishes here, like the sequences set in the massive underground caverns known as the Phantom Bazaar, to remind viewers of Hark’s past glories. But watching this film makes one realize that Tsui Hark has become the George Lucas of Hong Kong – except he’s been making prequels for something like ten years now. Whether you look at “Black Mask 2“, “Seven Swords,” or “Detective Dee,” clearly some magic has been lost. Poor special effects, a disregard for what good actors can bring to a film, and stories that most human beings would trouble relating to.
As a longtime fan of the director, it saddens me that I haven’t outright loved a Tsui Hark film since 1999’s “Time & Tide.” Hark’s movies used to be the purest distillation of his imagination onscreen, as he tossed images and ideas at the audience faster than they could process them. Nowadays Hark is lost in computer trickery; his fight scenes don’t have any sense of impact and his films labor over their dense plots. Where’s the magic, Tsui? Now that’s a mystery I’m not sure even Detective Dee could solve.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6/10