Friday, October 01, 2010

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (狄仁杰 / Di Ren Jie)

Chinese Sherlock

It's simply an interest week of big budgeted film releases in Singapore, from India's Endhiran starring Superstar Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, to the Asian martial arts film such as the John Woo produced Reign of Assassins, which is getting a special screening today before its release next week. Also, Tsui Hark joins the fray with his latest film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and if you like me, have wondered why Hark has made some astonishing lacklustre films of late, fret not folks, as this film marks the director's return to true class. Like the adage goes, form is temporary while class is permanent, and Detective Dee sounds that trumpet that he's back at his very best with this action adventure.

The scale of the film within its first ten minutes will win you over with its grandeur and ambition, and it sustained its stellar delivery at all fronts right up to the finale, keeping the mystery humming at the background, while constantly topping its action fight sequences from the previous. Set in the Tang Dynasty just before the coronation of Chinese history's legendary Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the mystery involves the self-immolation of court officials with whispers that the supernatural might be involved. All these strange happenings seem to point to a greater conspiracy that to skeptics go back to the Empress in waiting having a hand in them.

To show the masses that there is transparency in her governance, she releases on the advice of a wise sage, the Chinese Sherlock Holmes of her time, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) who she had imprisoned for challenging her rule to the throne some eight years ago. Reinstating his stature, she sets him about investigating these deaths, which spells an investigative adventure in a race against time to nab the culprits as well as to discover all hidden agendas that will go against the crowning of the very first female Emperor in China.

Tsui Hark, responsible for classics such as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain in the 80s, the Once Upon a Time in China series in the 90s, have yet to convince me that he had kept up with the times and I was afraid that he may have lost a lot of his clout with the naysayers abhorring his previous offerings like All About Women (seriously) and Missing. Detective Dee will now shut these fellas up (and I will admit, myself included), as we celebrate the helmer's vision and offering for a new audience to acquaint themselves with. The engaging and fantastical storyline by Chen Kuo-fu (also responsible for The Message) got brought to live by a number of Korean special effects teams, that your jaw will literally be wide open when marvelling at the intricate details from miniatures employed, to the money special effects shots.

Even then, there's no mistaking that it's also loaded with enough fight action to entertain, thanks to the action direction of Sammo Hung, of late hugely responsible for many action/martial arts flicks that bear his signature, creating unique fighting styles and stances for the characters, utilizing weapons seldom seen in Chinese cinema of late such as the whip, a throwable war-axe and Dee's mace, which comes with a tuning fork of a device that can exploit weakness in metal and lead to the demolition of opposition weapons. You'll have to see it to believe, and that iconic mace forms a sort of Truth object as well, one of the tools Dee utilizes that actually strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Even with big sets and awesome choreography, the cast was an eclectic mix of veterans and up and coming actors. Carina Lau marks that rare appearance as the ruthless and cold Empress Wu, while Andy Lau shows commanding his presence is thanks to that charisma of his as the titular detective, and you'll probably welcome the small cameo appearances by Teddy Robin and Richard Ng. Deng Chao shines in his role as the pale faced investigator Pei Donglai who starts off a really nasty cop with a nasty attitude, while Li Bingbing's Shangguan Jing'er is that loyal, dutiful servant of the Empress assigned to keep an eye on and report on Dee's investigations, and together they sort of form the Watsons to Dee's Sherlock, even though the trust levels between them aren't chummy, and takes quite a while for rapport to be built.

Sure it doesn't take rocket science to figure out who the chief culprit is in the story, but it's never always about the destination, but the experience in getting there. Detective Dee scores at all fronts with its excellent production values that you'd only experience in a Hollywood production, but Tsui Hark has through this one film demonstrated that Asian filmmakers can reach the same heights, or even surpass it, in terms of storyline, character development, and to top it all off with some eye popping and astoundingly detailed special effects used to create worlds that are of a bygone era. Highly recommended, and a contender to go into my shortlist of the best this year!

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