DETECTIVE DEE & THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME Blu-Ray Review
I'm going to confess to a piece of my ignorance with regards to film, and you can feel free to beat me up on the comments below, but in my head, I think I've always had an imperfect definition of the what noir is a genre. Of course it means more than simply movies featuring beefy men in trench coats, talking hard and trying to figure out what it all meant at the end, it's more than mood, lighting, or even period. I've read Out of the Past, Blade Runner, and Blood Simple all be described as "noir" or "noirish" to varying degrees, and I might be allowed to extrapolate from those three my own definition, and why I think that Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame is indeed Film noir: noir is all about how even in victory, our hero will fail, how--no matter how corrupt--our hero will find something decent in himself, but his or her virtue will nonetheless be unable to stand against the basic evil of other human beings.
And, despite a much lighter tone than the movies cited above, I think Detective Dee fits that bill, as a murder mystery set in ancient China about officials who are spontaneously combusting in the days leading up to the Empress' (Carina Lau) coronation. Dee (Andy Lau) was a court official under the deceased Emperor, imprisoned for treason, but when people start bursting into flames for no good reason, the Empress does what any of us would and calls the smartest person she knows in to take the case. In this theory of mine, Dee is the man of virtue and Lau is the basic evil, but then that paints an incomplete picture of what this movie is about. Dee suspects that the Empress might be involved in the murders that she wants him to solve and he might be right, I'm not telling, but what's more, he homes in on the corruption around her that would make such a crime possible. By the midway point, we have almost too many suspects to count, attempted seduction, multiple attacks by midnight assassins, shape changers, and Dee in the middle of it all, determined to see it through.
The movie's tone is a mix of action, drama, and comedy, but in a balance where the drama is facilitated by the action, and the comedy is there to loosen some of the tension. The fight choreography by Sammo Hung is thankfully not all cut to hell, but Hark's shots can get in kind of tight sometimes, making a couple of the dustups (particularly the one in the Phantom Market) hard to follow. Also, while Detective Dee employs tons of effects shots with sweeping images of a giant Buddha almost literally at the center of our story, the effects seldom feel gratuitous, and again, actually serve the plot instead of showing that the producers could afford a decent to so-so effects house. There's something I'll simply call the "deer fight" that's the one exception to this, but I'm willing to forgive it because the whole scene is so audacious and weird that it ends up working.
As Dee, Lau continues to remind us that he's simply one of the most charismatic actors working, expertly walking a fine line between upstanding moral fortitude and danger. While I don't think it's ever in doubt for us that Dee will do the right thing, for the character it feels less certain, as he collects more enemies and potential allies who could help him revenge himself upon the Empress. Plus, the script recognizes the basic tenet that if your character is a detective, your story should have them doing some detecting. Lau makes it look easy, but only as a matter of being the smartest man in the room, who can figure out the mechanics of a murder but maybe not the human component that led to it.
Indomina brings the disc to the U.S. with a decent suite of special features, most of them in the realm of EPK content. The one major gripe I have about the material here is the not-great video quality which seems formatted by standard def televisions but has an excessive level of blurriness to it.
I can't level the same complaint at the movie itself, which is vibrant thanks to Indomina's transfer. Detective Dee is a very colorful movie and it's well-served by this disc which captures the rich palette employed by Tsui Hark for the film.
Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.