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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

dir: Tsui Hark
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Some directors win their way back into our good graces by making a transformative leap in their filmmaking in order to deliver a great film after decades of slumming. Other directors delight or depress us by consistently putting out the same kind of film, year after year, Woody, decade after decade.

Other directors win us over again by going way back in style and intent, and delivering the kind of flick they delivered way back when they were still making good flicks.

Tsui Hark’s great claim to fame is, in my opinion, being part of that new wave of Hong Kong film in the late 80s – early 90s which reminded the rest of the world that Hong Kong was still making some awesome action flicks. Along with the John Woo flicks The Killer and Hard Boiled, Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China flicks were part of that vanguard reinvading the West with hyperactive action and a complete disregard for the safety of stuntpeople that blew the tender sensibilities of audiences away all over again.

Of course, with success comes money, hookers and moving to Hollywood to make horrible flicks with Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, which will kill your career if there’s any justice in the universe.

Against all reason or justice, someone, possibly Triad gangsters or the Chinese Government, keeps giving Tsui Hark money, and here he’s delivered a film that is both good and bad, though probably not in equal parts.

The character of Detective Dee, or Di Renjie as they know him, is like a Chinese folk hero Sherlock Holmes dating back from the Tang Dynasty. There’s probably little likelihood of Robert Downey Jnr playing him, so they brought in the next best thing, being Andy Lau, probably one of my least favourite Hong Kong actors of the last twenty years.

But he’s an awesome Cantopop singer, mark my words, brethren and sistren.

Still, he does a decent enough job here as the Detective in question. He is brought out of jail and banishment by the person that put him there, being the soon to be crowned Empress Wu (the awesomely imperious Carina Lau), who is busy overseeing the building of a gargantuan Buddha statue in her own image. They didn’t, back in the day, see eye to eye on whether she should be appointing herself the sovereign of all under heaven. So she banished Dee, and cut off the hand of his friend, Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka Fai), though she let him work on her Buddha statue, showing how merciful she is.

At the giant statue, which is of a size and shape unlike virtually anything that’s ever been built outside of hotels in Abu Dhabi, some people die in a quite horrible way. It looks, for all the world, as if they’re spontaneously combusting, and leaving this world in possibly the most excruciating way possible. Empress Wu tasks Detective Dee with finding out what’s going on, because people are starting to gossip, implying that the gods in heaven, displeased with Empress Wu’s arrogance at having the temerity to sit upon the throne whilst not possessing testicles, are randomly making people burn up into beef in black bean sauce to show their displeasure.

And Empress Wu doesn’t like that one bit.

Dee, wearing some of the stupidest hats not only in Chinese but in world history, sets about deducting and detecting as only the most famous detective in Chinese history can. He’s equal parts Holmes, Shaft and Columbo, this one, and sees elements and clues that no-one else, except when the screenwriters think it’s appropriate, can see, damn their eyes.

So, as a fairly standard detective plot for this genre, we have a crime that looks like it is supernatural in origin, which every other superstitious idiot things is supernatural, that has to be debunked and solved in the last act by our hero, who pulls off the costume and forces the real perpetrator to yell about getting away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. Yes, it’s the standard Scooby Doo plot without the drug references.

The problem, for me, is that the people making this flick didn’t have a lot of faith in that kind of plot dynamic / set-up, which is why they set up a premise with an implied supernatural answer, debunk it, and then give a different, even more supernatural answer instead.

I’m not one to gripe only because something has sidestepped my expectations, in fact I often applaud films that do exactly that. My problem here is that as more of the plot revelations were, uh, revealed, I grew more and more disappointed, and instead of thinking, “Oh, how clever”, I was thinking, “that’s pretty lame, buckos.”

Not content with having a pretty awesome locale and era to work with, the flick goes underground literally, as the Detective and two other sidekicks, one a court eunuch judge (Chao Deng) and the Empress’s head toecutter (Bingbing Li) try to find someone called Donkey Wang.

I’m not kidding, he’s called Donkey Wang. I would have directed them to their local Chinese herbalist place, where they could have happily asked in earnest, “Hi, have you got two kilos of donkey wang, please?” and been respected for their question and served appropriately.

End of story. Instead, they go underground looking for someone whose appearance has been changed with acupuncture needles, which keeps figuring into the plot later on, to ill effect.

A pretty awesome fight ensues underground, where they search for something called ‘fire turtles’, which is the worst mistranslation in subtitles I’ve seen in a while, since I’m sure they meant ‘beetles’, but it’s pretty much downhill from there.

Because then there’s a forbidden journey to a forbidden priest’s retreat, where presumably there’s something forbidden other than the CGI reindeer that start attacking people or talking. And then there’s a whole bunch of other crap that fills in time before the killings are solved, and the final action set piece atop the Buddha statue ensues.

Look, it’s not that it’s a bad flick. But it is, in large swathes, a pretty silly flick that takes itself way too seriously for something so unintentionally goofy. It’s not really a martial arts flick, so people expecting wall to wall action are going to be bitterly disappointed. Andy Lau for once is not the weakest link, it’s just that I wished the flick gave him more to do that just walking around looking enigmatic and making loud pronouncements like he was Napoleon practicing his speechmaking in his bedroom in front of a mirror, “You talking to me? You talking to me? I don’t see anyone else here…” etc

There are plenty of plotholes and lapses that are nonsensical, which you’re supposed to accept or ignore in a flick that you’re enjoying, and I can do that most of the time. It’s just sometimes the sheer laziness of it overwhelms you so much that you can’t really recover from it. Not to spoil this flick, since its plot is so convoluted that I don’t think I could spoil it even if I wanted to and tried, but there’s a scene where a character is seriously wounded, and carried away by another character. They are then walking randomly from wherever they were to some other destination that they and we don’t know. Somehow, even though there was no reason upon this green earth for anyone to be able to do it or predict it, the ‘baddie’s’ henchmen have set up a trap in the middle of the forest that takes one of them out.

Huh? What? What awesome predictive powers, dirty henchmen!

I guess instead they could have just had someone burst into flames randomly, if they couldn’t think of interesting dialogue for them to say from then on in. Sounds like a great way to deal with inconvenient people, don’t you think?

It’s not a failure, by any stretch, because there’s are some pretty awesome scenes, but there’s also a lot of dross, and there’s that thing that happens when screenwriters who aren’t all that smart try to make a character look smarter than the rest, but can’t really think of a plot outcome that doesn’t sound like a kid caught in a lie, stretching it out and throwing in everything and the kitchen sink in order to escape the inevitable.

Carina Lau was grand though, wasn’t she, playing this most famous of female despots? I almost thought she was in a Star Wars movie at certain points, so attuned to the workings of the overacting Force as she was. All she needed was to raise her clenched fist at the camera and I would have been convinced she was Darth Vader.

A return to form for Tsui Hark? Not really, more like a return to scorn. Do better next time, ya lazy hack.

6 times I kept expecting dialogue like ‘his organ was burst by bullet’ to appear, only to be bitterly disappointed out of 10

“We must find Donkey Wang. It’s the only solution.” – there is a certain amount of Confucian wisdom in what you say – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.