Tribeca 2011: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Tribeca 2011: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME Review
DetectiveDee.jpg
It's been a while since Tsui Hark has produced a real crowd pleaser. Once the absolute top of the heap when it came to action film, his peak period spinning out hits by the fistful as both a producer and a director, the general consensus is that his last really good film was Time And Tide a full decade ago with more recent efforts like Seven Swords and Missing bogging down in overly convoluted plots and uninspired scripts. Looking back over this period - as well as the five year span prior, with the gap between The Blade and Time And Tide also fairly shaky - one other factor becomes apparent. Somewhere along the line Hark seemed to forget that movies are meant to be fun.

Though still over plotted and overly convoluted Hark's latest, Detective Dee And The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is very definitely fun. This is a movie that features a kung fu fight pitting Andy Lau against a herd of angry, talking deer. This is a movie with a plotline built around apparent cases of spontaneous human combustion. This is a movie that saddles Teddy Robin (most recently seen in Gallants) with a character named Donkey Wang, and whether that particular gag was intentional or not it brought an adolescent grin to my face every time someone said it. And it does all of this is a movie that is not technically a comedy. Tsui Hark has found his missing sense of humor*, people, and it looks good on him.

Andy Lau stars as popular literary character Detective Dee, a former police officer jailed for treason when he opposed the rise of China's only female Emperor to the throne. Her methods were not entirely ethical, you see, and speculation abounded as to the former Emperor really died and Dee just couldn't stand for that. And so he has rotted in jail for eight years as the woman who jailed him consolidates her power as Regent for the young Crown Prince before finally making a play to take the throne herself.

But this does not go unopposed. Preparations for a massive coronation ceremony are interrupted when two high ranking workers preparing a massive bronze Buddha statue - one that would dwarf the statue of liberty - appear to spontaneously combust on the work site, events that those close to the Empress view as a not particularly veiled threat against her. Desperate to know how to proceed she takes counsel from her spiritual adviser who sends a talking deer (really) telling her that only Dee can crack this case. And so out of jail he comes, forced to swear allegiance to the woman he once tried to depose, matched with one of the Empress' favored (and beautiful) guards and an albino Supreme Court super cop as helpers / guards to help him crack the case while also making sure he doesn't return to his seditious ways.

And off we go through a story that is equal parts Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie style) and Scooby Doo (original cartoon style), all of it filtered through a gorgeous Chinese historical epic lens.

Very much a film in the Everything Including The Kitchen Sink mold of The Bride With White Hair or A Chinese Ghost Story, the preference for CGI effects - some good, some less good - over practical work may irk some but the spirit of the picture is spot on with Hark's own roots and that return to devil may care, let's try a bit of everything film making reminds us why we cared about Hark in the first place. A bit of comedy, a bit of mystery, some romance, some martial arts, a dash of horror, a trace of palace intrigue, Detective Dee is like a full season of your favorite kung fu soap opera distilled down into a more compact package with far better production values.

Andy Lau gets out of his recent rut with his first character overseas fans can latch on to since 2007's Warlords - an eternity for a guy who works at the pace Lau does - and he is matched by a solid cast across the board. Fight choreography by Sammo Hung straddles the line between old and new school, matching elements of both and the settings the characters are dropped into evoke the Golden Age style while looking far more polished. Though there is a bit of wobbly CGI - the deer and some of the combustion shots in particular - most of it is well used and well above typical quality for the region.

It's still over complicated, there's no doubt about that. Hark could seriously use a seasoned script editor who he trusts on his staff, someone who could crack the whip and rein in the more serious excesses and unnecessary diversions. But after a lengthy string of near misses and outright misfires it's a joy to see Hark at the helm of a film that gets so much more right than wrong. Not perfect by a long shot but Detective Dee marks the return of Hark the entertainer as opposed to Hark the serious film maker and we're all better off for it.

* Yes, I know 2008's All About Women was a comedy. I just didn't find it a funny one.
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More about Detective Dee

Matthew LeeSeptember 17, 2010 9:51 PM

What early Tsui Hark have you seen, Todd? Not doubting your take on this (not yet, anyway), just curious. I was pretty much willing to wait for however long it took to see if the man who made Peking Opera Blues could get back on form, but I can't remember if - when people were lamenting his fall from grace - you ever actually confirmed or denied you'd seen his stuff when he was turning out equal parts lunacy and sheer genius with every other film.


That said, good review. This is probably the film I most envy TIFF-goers for, and it's great to see someone praising it.

ChevalierAguilaSeptember 18, 2010 12:39 AM

Hark's problems with scripts have been going on for a while now. Also, yes, he needs a good editor.

doceiriasSeptember 18, 2010 2:01 PM

I don't think his real problems lie in the script department so much as they lie in the action; he went from a little incoherent to completely unintelligible. Seven Swords seemed like either the editors were idiots or Hark simply hadn't given them anything that could be edited into anything that made a lick of sense. It was such a pervasive problem that I'm kind of confused you didn't mention it at all here.

Rhythm-XSeptember 18, 2010 3:23 PM

Seems like a lot of the issues with Tsui's recent output stem from him shooting a mini-series worth of material which he then edits down to feature length. Most folks here probably know about the incomplete 4.5 hour cut of SEVEN SWORDS that exists in workprint form (Bey Logan says he's seen it); according to Tsui himself TIME AND TIDE and ALL ABOUT WOMEN were of similar epic length at first. Apparently there's a completed 3 hour version of ALL ABOUT WOMEN sitting unreleased. (The lack of hours of dubbing for the extended version is purportedly why that 4.5 hour SEVEN SWORDS won't ever see the light of day.)

Todd BrownSeptember 18, 2010 7:45 PM

I haven't seen all of his stuff but I have seen a LOT of it. Probably about two thirds, I'd say. Peking Opera Blues is one that I have not, though.

Rhythm-XSeptember 18, 2010 8:21 PM

Oh man, I envy you. You don't have to watch PEKING OPERA BLUES for the first time on a 1.85:1-squeezed-to-4:3 VHS tape with burned in subtitles so bad that Nansun Shi apologized to the New York Times for them. (http://fwd4.me/epF)



Unless you've got access to the retranslated Miramax print (which ran on the defunct US channel Kung Fu HD) or the ultra-ULTRA-rare, barely released HKL version, the Joy Sales DVD is about as good as it gets for this film right now. This isn't damning with faint praise - it's of very high AV quality, and it even has partially corrected subtitles.

ChevalierAguilaSeptember 19, 2010 5:47 AM

Yeah but longer doesn't mean better, Apocalypse now redux feels like a pointless movie, while the slim version is truly the best movie. Just because there are 4 hours of footage doesn't mean we need to see all of them, that's what editing is for. You edit the rough cut and form a coherent well-shaped material.

TorySeptember 19, 2010 12:17 PM

Two things:

To Rhythm-X: I had no effing clue that there was a longer cut of Time and Tide. Has anyone besides Tsui ever seen it? I'd love to get my hands on that someday.

To CA: I remember catching the redux version when I was in high school and being impressed, but not as blown away as I was expecting to be. Unfortunately, that was the first time I'd ever watched the film, in any form. And thanks to your post, I'm starting to get why I wasn't blown away. For whatever reason, I'd assumed that the redux was supposed to be better.

Rhythm-XSeptember 19, 2010 7:08 PM

I don't know that the 4 hour cut of TIME AND TIDE exists in a remotely complete state if at all - Hark mentions it in passing on the TIME AND TIDE commentary track on the US DVD by way of pointing out little bits and pieces of various subplots and scenes that were deleted.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlMkyASLggt9hZMz-HoneN7BXuQ2OpNpZwSeptember 19, 2010 8:23 PM

Nice review Todd. Not saying that ive even read it, but the fact that its about Tsui Hark and there are some worthy things to say about his film even if it sucks complete donkey balls makes me admit ive gone absolutely bananas for my favourite grandma. in a completely non gilf way. by the way, this comment makes as much sense as tsui hark film but possibly, as equally delirious. Please ignore.Whoops, too late.

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 20, 2010 1:55 PM

The long version of Apocalypse Now is far superior to the original cut. The journey feels more epic and it has a few different tones on the go. Now I love the the original version too, but the Redux is more satisfying. And this was after having seen the original half a dozen times before watching the Redux (albeit, I caught Redux in theatres...)

2BitJanuary 16, 2011 3:27 AM

Finally got around to watching this flick tonight & I wanted to say you nailed this review Todd. I avoided it before having seen the movie, but everything you've written here echo my sentiments. I truly enjoyed the heck out of this film! Flaws & all. Anyone who says it's light on action doesn't know what they're talking about. It's a blast from beginning to end. Great to see Tsui Hark moving back in the right direction. Let's just hope it continues that way.

zen99January 28, 2011 1:55 PM

Yeah the CGI is inconsistent. Yeah, the movie falls apart as a detective movie about half way through. Yeah it feels overly complicated (when it's actually underplotted and incoherent at times.) Yeah the wirework is a tad creaky. . And because the plot doesn't integrate Tony L's character (or other baddies for that matter) and there are no real red herrings in this detective flic, it is ultimately unsatisfying. But having said all this, it's still a fun watch full of eyecandy, and very watchable lead characters.