Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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October 17, 2011 by Mark Mesaros

Fellow contributor and anal-retentive Ian Simmons might’ve started off his review by remolding the title of Tsui Hark’s latest as Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Plot, a mystery not worth solving. More on that later.

Detective Dee proves that Asian genre cinema is accorded too much credit by Americans these days1, in a way that suggests remittance for past neglect, much the same as Hollywood personalities are begrudged their shiny trophies after long periods of snubbing. Tsui Hark is one such Asian filmmaker, lauded by fans of the wuxia sub-genre, who now finds himself on the verge of cult hero status, retrospectives of his long body of work having popped up in New York City and elsewhere. Detective Dee supposedly wowed audiences at this year’s Asian film festival to boot. I won’t argue that this lavish attention isn’t much deserved as I’ve enjoyed many a Hark film going back decades, but Detective Dee is beneath the director and all involved, including Sammo Hung, one of my personal heroes of the martial arts cinema.

Kicking things off with a prologue that sees imperial officers giving a foreign ambassador a tour of the 66-meter high Buddha statue being constructed for the coronation of Empress Wu, China’s first empress, Detective Dee’s widescreen format sweeps us through an ugly, CGI-enhanced cityscape complete with harbor and thousands of pixelated ships. The pixels of the Buddha itself are apparent and, furthermore, long shots indicate that it’s much much larger than a mere 66 meters. If the computer effects team isn’t even going to bother approximating the proper scale of an important plot piece minutes into the film, it doesn’t bode well for the rest which, no surprise, continues to look cheap and stapled on rather than expensive and lavish all the way to the ultimate credits two hours later.

The official tour guide’s spontaneous combustion and melting body is an equal eyesore, but it takes us into the film proper. Foul play is immediately suspected and Pei Donglai (Chao Deng), the albino policeman, is called to the scene to investigate. The construction boss (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is suspected, but he claims divine intercession as the melted official removed sacred amulets from the tower’s construction just days prior. Another spontaneous combustion impels Empress Wu (Carina Lau) to summon the realm’s greatest detective, Detective Dee (Andy Lau), out of retirement in prison where the Empress herself sent him eight years ago for defying her regency. She teams him with a trusted protegee, Jing’er (Bingbing Li), and the aforementioned Pei Donglai, none of whom trusts the other. Dee quickly surmises that the victims were poisoned by liquid means and that they both seem to have perished under the sun’s rays.

Richard Nilsen notes in his review that “Dee astonishes us by discovering impenetrable plots not so much by clues, but by having seemed to read several pages ahead in the script, before anyone else has.”2 To take that analogy a step further, not only does it appear that Dee has read the script, but that he’s played Mad Libs with it to bemuse the audience. If you see this in spite of my review, you’ll know what I mean. Literally anything may be used to advance the plot, regardless of its plot relevance, regardless of the fact that it’s nary been mentioned yet in the film, and usually by outright computer manipulation—these are commonly known as deus ex machinas. Even if its progression were cogent, the plot remains pointless and silly even by fantasy standards. Everyone was too busy being wowed by the idea of a Sherlock Holmes-wuxia mash-up to wonder, “what’s the point of sleuthing in a world where physical laws need not apply?” The fact that this is unabashed fantasy thoroughly drains any potency the detective story may have had; wuxia is a world of invisible wires, trampoline trees, physical mutations, combustible bugs, talking stags and female emperors… just kidding on the last one.

The emotional subplots fare no better. I would stare up in amazement every 15 minutes or so at a character teary-eyed, unable to piece together why. The characters believe their own stories, but we don’t. Why is Detective Dee crying? Because Pei Donglai just melted in front of him. Why does he suddenly have feelings for the albino? Your guess is as good as mine.

So a plot that’s in no way compelling, compounded by only occasionally interesting cinematography bloated with lazy computer effects, but it can still be salvaged by cool setpieces and action choreography courtesy of Sammo Hung, right? Apparently, no. Hung tries his best, but even the best stunt work is obscured by Hollywood cutting techniques a la Paul Greengrass. Making things worse still, Sammo Hung is a guy who has, with the exception of an acting gig in Hark’s early masterpiece Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, rarely worked in wuxia before; Hung made a name for himself performing real stunts with little trickery. Here, he seems to think that wires make for inherently fascinating action so he does very little to freshen up the old conceit. And again, he’s hampered every step of the way by clumsy blocking techniques that make one wonder how many stragglers were loafing around the set that editor Chi Wai Yau, who got his start in the ’90s on Jackie Chan movies and apparently forgot everything he learned, was forced to cut out any subtlety of movement?

The sole major exception is a fight that takes place in the gaudy Phantom Bazaar, a literally underground black market that looks as if it were culled from a Harry Potter film, between the three protagonists and the mystical magistrate (forgive me, I can’t recall his name or actual function) who’s capable of splintering his body and fighting with several parts when he’s not flinging enormous logs at his opponents like missiles. The action here and the whole set-up recalls the old low-budget Chang Cheh masterpieces that accomplished everything only sporadically glimpsed here with about 1% of the budget. If the entire film were framed with the kind of energy and creativity found in this scene, it would’ve been worthwhile. The digital Red One cameras used exclusively in this film are finally put to good effect here with a combination of close-ups and manual zoom that lends the scene a surreal video game quality.

In conclusion, splendid hats do not make a movie. The Huayi Brothers spent $13 million on one decent fight and splendid hats.

1 Exhibit A.

2 Full review found here. Mr. Nilsen is the only reviewer I’ve come across to give this film anything close to its just desserts, and even he lauds the embarrassing CGI and by-the-book camerawork. It’s like every other critic on the planet was paid off by the brothers Huayi or else has never seen a martial arts film before and is too enamored with the novelty of it to think clearly.

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