Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

In “Detective Dee and the Secret of the Phantom Flame” Tsui Hark creates a world based on historical fact—the beginning of the reign of Wu Zetian, the first (and, so far, only female ruler of China) in 690 AD. It has square rigged ships from the 18th century, industrial techniques from the 19th century and a relatively modern view of the role of women in society. It includes trusted advisors to the Empress dying while bursting into flame, a band of assassins armed with deadly dart-like arrows who, like the Spanish Inquisition, are never expected but who always show up and people with the ability to change gender and age by twisting wires implanted in their brains. There are talking deer, exploding beetles and a bird that senses danger. Everyone—the good, the bad and the ambiguous—can jump to and from rooftops, stack up the bodies of enemies like cordwood and always look great while doing it. It is a wuxia historical mystery with sumptuous costumes and flashy, perfectly planned and executed action choreography (Sammo Hung) and astonishing sets whether they were built in a CGI computer, a model shop or on a soundstage. It doesn’t quite hold together and nitpickers will find some loose ends but “Detective Dee” is a terrific movie: exciting, romantic and lots of fun.

Andy Lau and Li Bing-Bing take care of most of the human element. Carina Lau does a good job with a thankless role, the evil Empress; Tony Leung Ka-Fai rings the changes from cringing to stoic to insane and makes us believe him; Deng Chao has a good time as the extremely pale (and creepy) official who figures things out. Li Bing-Bing smolders and pouts, making no secret of her total dedication to the Empress, willing to die or kill in her service while Andy Lau is stoic, charming where appropriate, ruthless where necessary.

The Empress is not amused.

The ever loyal Shatuo Zhong. He has something up his sleeve--besides his hook.

The movie is pulled along less by its plot—which wanders all over the place—but by the tension generated and resolved within several sets of paired opposites. The most obvious one is Detective Dee and Shangguan Jing'er, the head of the Praetorian guard for the Empress. They begin their relationship by insulting one another, then try to kill each other followed by getting naked and almost making love, only to be thwarted by an attack by the ever present assassins. That their attempted coupling is something other than just having a good time while stuck on a deployment can be seen when Shangguan Jing'er keeps a razor handy during what passes for foreplay between these two.

There are some unstated but obvious Sapphic subtexts involving the Empress. One is with her personal servant and food taster who not only lives to serve Wu Zetain but who wants more than anything else to give her life for her. A backstory is hinted at in a couple of lines of dialog but no more than that. The servant isn’t happy that the rehabilitated Dee is joining the court.

Shangguan Jing'er is even more displeased. She doesn’t want Dee or anyone else coming between her and the Empress and does an impressive sulk when sent on her way so that Dee and the Empress can talk about old times. Li Bing-Bing is a master at keeping very still while allowing the rage burning within her to show through.

The fantastic parts of "Detective Dee" are crazy enough to be enjoyed by aficionados of over the top plot points. There is the chaplain disguised as a talking deer who gives incomprehensible advice in perfect Mandarin (or whatever was spoken by in 685 AD) and the assassins who are so committed to not being taken alive that they jump into a roaring furnace when disarmed.

The first flaming official.

I'll leave any discussion of how this fits into Tsui Hark's body of work to those more attuned to such things and simply recommend "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" as an very entertaining movie.

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