Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

Posted in Reviews by - July 14, 2019
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

A brooding gothic horror dealing in the macabre and the supernatural; a murder mystery akin to Agatha Christie; and a martial arts action movie – all rolled into one. This is Tsui Hark at his most magical, spinning a vivid story reflective of his most excellent wuxia work back in 1990s Hong Kong. Li Bingbing’s icy imperial aide, in particular, is the type of character you would expect Brigitte Lin to have played, while Sammo Hung‘s fight choreography enriches the action with his familiar intricacies. Set in 698 AD in the run-up to the coronation of China’s first female emperor, Empress Wu (Carina Lau), we see her assume command at a time when the country is in conflict. Despite seemingly leading China into a period of relative prosperity, her reputation is synonymous with cruelty, and many conspirators want her removed from office, mostly on misogynistic grounds. This theme of superstition – and changes of tradition – runs central to the film, particularly in the looming visage of a giant Buddha statue constructed by royal decree to guard over the imperial palace. The structure itself is thought to be tainted by some malign presence, as during the final stages of its construction, a minister spontaneously combusts, and another dies in the same grisly manner a few days later. It sounds like another case for pragmatic kung fu super-sleuth Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a former government official thrown in prison because of his defiance to the new Empress, only to be released from the slammer by his old enemy and made Imperial Commissioner to head up the case. He is watched like a hawk by Wu’s assistant (Li Bingbing) and a feared eunuch (Deng Chao),¬†each indebted to their new leader but deeply untrusting of each other’s motives. Like all good detective stories, Hark’s film continually throws up new intrigues, subplots and red herrings, all the while building on a fun supernatural premise involving talking deers and shape-shifters. And Andy Lau never once cracks through his stoic veneer, even when things get really kooky.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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