Stars: Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Catrina Lau, Lee Bingbing, Deng Chao | Written by Chen Kuofu & Lin Qianya | Action Director: Sammo Hung | Directed by Tsui Hark
Review by Baron Fortnightly
“When a series of mysterious murders prevents the inauguration of China’s first Empress, Detective Dee, the greatest investigative mind and Kung Fu Master of his generation, is brought back from exile to embark on a manhunt that will forever change the course of history! With a matchless performance from leading-man Andy Lau (Warlords and House of the Flying Daggers) and breathtaking action from the martial arts director of Ip Man and Ip Man 2, Detective Dee is non-stop, heart-racing entertainment in the highest traditions of Asian Action Cinema.”
Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a 2010 Chinese martial arts/whodunit movie based on the Chinese folk hero and celebrated Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie, otherwise known as Judge Dee in the series of novels by Dutch author Robert Van Gulik (the first of which was a translation of the 18th century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An).
The film is epic in look, and deftly directed by Tsui Hark with well thought out action scenes directed by famed fight choreographer and martial artist Sammo Hung. The films breathtaking vistas were mainly shot at Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang, which is one of the most popular filming locations in China due to its very impressive permanent sets. The Forbidden City recreation and many other sets used in films such as Hero and Forbidden Kingdom are redressed for use in Detective Dee; all of which adds to the movies epic feel.
In Asia Detective Dee did better at the box-office than Inception and has netted Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Director, Actress, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume & Make-up Design, and Sound Design.
Tsui Hark is probably best known in the West for directing the Once Upon a Time in China series starring Jet Li, and directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in a few of his 1990 films. You can tell he’s done his homework on this film, the interaction between Dee and Empress Wu Zetian hint at the rumored romance that the historical pair were said to have had – Di Renjie was said to be one of the few people allowed to remain standing in the Empress’s presence such was her affection for him.
Andy Lau plays Detective Dee as the Chinese Sherlock Holmes, he knows what people are thinking and is always planning three steps ahead. Whilst everyone else is in the dark you can tell that he’s smirking inside because he knows all the details, although the twists in this movie eventually surprise Dee.
Dee is backed up by two antagonist assistants, neither of which trusts Dee or the other. Shangguan Jing’er (the striking Lee Bingbing) is a martial artist skilled with the whip, who serves as Wu Zeitan’s bodyguard and right-hand woman; and the albino looking aggressive investigator Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) who was involved in the case of the Phantom Flame before Dee was released from jail to take over the case.
Sammo Hung brings his realistic and grounded fight choreography style that he’s been so successful with in Ip Man and Ip Man 2. The punches and kicks look real, and whilst fight scenes are still exciting and flashy, they’re not over the top. The three main characters all have their own fighting style which says something about their personality. Jing’er is fast moving using her whip to strike from a distance, Donglai is brutal, jumping into close-combat with his axe, and Dee is focused, dodging attacks before they’ve even have a chance to hit.
The 2 disc DVD release from Cine Asia has both 2.0 and 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack, with English subtitles. As always from Cine Asia there is a Bey Logan commentary track – which whilst still interesting and worth a listen, isn’t as exciting as his previous audio commentaries. Extras are limited and aren’t really worth the 2nd disc, they consist of some quite good interviews (Sammo’s is by far the best, he comes across as a funny, passionate film maker who enjoyed working with Hark for the first time); a 17 minute collection of behind the scenes footage, and a 20 minute promotion feature for Cine Asia.
Overall, Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a cross between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. If you like a mystery with a nice bit of action this is one for you.