Sunday, June 2, 2013

Movie review -- Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I came across this flick a little while back and was intrigued by the title. I'm glad I decided to watch it all the way through.

The year is 689 A.D. and with the previous Emperor dead, China is being ruled by a Regent - Wu Zetian. China has prospered under her rule, though the patriarchal/monarchical society isn't keen about an Empress on a full-time basis. Convinced she has heaven's mandate to ascend the throne, Wu doesn't hesitate to remove anyone who objects to her rise. Making use of everything and everyone at her disposal, including the mysterious Imperial Chaplain, rebels and dissidents are jailed or killed.

To celebrate her coronation, a huge buddha is being constructed outside the Imperial Palace opposite the coronation stage. But there is unrest amongst the workers. The central core of the buddha is covered with amulets supplied by the Imperial Chaplain to ward off evil spirits. An inspector, Jia Yi, has moved one of the amulets during his inspection and forgotten to replace it. The workers assume something evil will befall them or the project. Before the Inspector can replace the amulet, he bursts into flame while conducting a tour of the buddha with visiting dignitaries.

An official from the Supreme Court is sent to investigate. The official, Master Xue, believes the inspector was poisoned with phosphorus. His junior, Pei Donglai disagrees thinking there may be something to the construction superintendent's claim of divine intervention. Xue scoffs at that notion and rips the amulet off the column, daring the gods to strike him down. When they ride to share their conclusions with the soon-to-be Empress, who is enjoying a military tribute, Xue bursts into flame on the parade grounds in front of everyone.

Unsure of exactly who is trying to ruin her coronation, Wu is visited by the Imperial Chaplain's magic deer (yeah, I actually wrote that), who via a cryptic speech implies that only the imprisoned Detective Dee can solve the case.

Dee has been languishing in prison for eight years for opposing Wu Zetian's regency. She has him released from prison and placed at the head of the Supreme Court as Imperial Commissioner with his task to solve the mystery of the phantom flame. Zetian assigns two others to assist him in his investigation -- Jing'er Shangguan, played by Li Bing Bing is an official of the Palace and a possible lover/consort to Wu. Pei Donglai, played by Deng Chao, is a member of the Supreme Court and is also an albino (not sure why exactly, but whatever...).

Plenty of familiar faces in this movie. Dee is played by the wonderful Andy Lau, whom I recognized from The House of Flying Daggers as the tortured lover of Mei. Li Bing Bing appeared in Resident Evil: Retribution as the back-stabbing spy Ada Wong. Also, the buddha's construction supervisor, Shatuo Zhong played by Tony Leung can be seen in another of my favorite's -- Bodyguards and Assassins.

I was tempted to refer to this as a "little" film in the opening, but the movie has a huge budget. Most of the sets are massive and intricately designed and detailed. The palace, the various homes and villages, Infinity Monastery -- all look beautiful and colorful. The costumes are extravagant period looks, I especially got a kick out of the over-the-top hairdos and head adornments worn by Wu Zetian. Fabulous! And the CGI, whether the cityscape vistas or the inside of the buddha or any of the special effects -- well done and unobtrusive. They dropped some serious coin on this flick. Plus it is directed by Tsui Hark and has Sammo Hung doing the action scenes, so some nice pedigree at work here as well.

Dee's relationship with the various characters gives the film some added depth. When Dee and the Empress meet following his release from prison, their interaction shows that they clearly know each other quite well from before. The way she hands him his badge of authority -- is that some slight passion there or just part of Wu's clever manipulation? With both Jing'er and Pei, Dee doesn't hesitate to tweak their arrogant behaviour all while teaching and protecting them. On mulitple occassions, Dee warns Jing'er that Wu's intense suspiciousness and relentless drive to ascend the throne will cause her to sacrifice anyone to achieve her goal.

It becomes obvious that Dee and Jing'er are attracted to one another, though Jing'er's ultimate devotion is to Wu. Pei seems both protective of, and in competition with and/or suspicious of, Jing'er. The protective bit seems odd as she is, herself, a talented fighter armed with a long whip and a sword. Pei too, is walking armory, carrying a sword and a double-bladed short axe, plus an odd helicopter dart thingy and exploding smoke bombs.

Dee's weapon is something he refers to as his "Dragon Taming Mace" a gift from the previous Emperor. The mace is a pretty cool weapon -- iron (I'm assuming), with a spinning band that when rubbed against an opponent's weapon will tell the wielder where the other weapon has a crack. Thus Dee can destroy any sword by striking where the crack has been revealed. This also leads to a delightful quote from the film. When the Empress asks Dee to tell her why the mace is so special, he demonstrates by destroying a stone column. Wu looks slyly at Dee and tells him that men also have weak points and will break when struck. heh

But here's where I, as a westerner, have some trouble with Asian mythology and traditions (I also have trouble with which name to put first, so if I'm messing up the names here, I apologize). Anyway, when the Emperor bestows the Mace on Dee, he tells him that if he (the Emperor) ever errs in his rule, Dee should counsel him before the mace.


And on two other occasions, Dee asks the Empress questions while holding the mace before her, as though she dare not lie in its presence. I'm not complaining, I'm just having a hard time drawing a correlation with something in my frame of reference. Swearing on the Bible, maybe? Who knows?

The story isn't hard to follow, though reading the sub-titles can slow you down a bit and requires multiple viewings to get all the details. At least it did for me, but you know -- concussion. Dee is a masterful fighter and a good detective and pieces things together along with some of the concurrent sub-plots without making it seem leapy. The case is solved eventually. I did not guess in advance who the baddie was, so that's kind of cool. The movie has nice pacing. There are some great fight scenes, a little wire-fu but not so much as to overwhelm things. Some subtle humor, plus the usual nobility and self-sacrifice you see in these new China flicks.

I have the DVD of this film and have watched the English-dubbed version and the Mandarin with English subtitles and find the latter to be the superior choice. Clearly the same people who did the subtitles are not the people who did the dubbing as they are distinctly different. And I like the flavor of the subtitles. A good example is when they are speaking of the Phantom Bazaar. In the subtitles the place is described by Pei as a "spooky pandemonium" while in the dubbed version, Pei calls it a "dirty slum." I don't know about you, but spooky pandemonium gets my vote every time.

All in all, this movie is a fun watch and easy to sit through multiple viewings. No nudity or sex, a little bloody (I think it is rated PG-13), but none of the over-the-top gushing geysers from the chop-socky type action movies. I highly recommend it.

Did you find this review helpful? Check out my other reviews for my thoughts on the flicks and the occasional gallery of hotness that accompanies them:

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