With a name like Detective Dee and The Mystery of The Phantom Flame, you just knew I’d get around to watching this… It sounds like pure pulp and a lot of fun.
Which is pretty much exactly what it was.
Directed by Hark Tsui, the film is set in 690 B.C.E. Andy Lau, plays the titular investigator.
Previously exiled due to his involvement in a rebellion against Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), who is on the cusp of becoming Empress, Dee is summoned to resolve a series of baffling murders.
It seems, some rather important personages involved in inspecting a towering Buddha statue which overlooks the soon-to-be-Empress palace have spontaneously combusted.
Murder is suspected, but the more Dee investigates the more of a target he makes of himself, as politics, personal loyalties, vengeance, and plans of war come to a head.
The film is fun, and while I will be the first to admit I don’t know everything or even a lot about Chinese cinema (though I do know what I like) there were some fantastic images and sequences in the film.
The action choreography was done by Sammo Hung, and as one would expect, they’re brilliant to look at, and often defy physics and gravity. There’s even a sequence where Dee takes on magical deer (you read that right). There’s also a sequence, which sees a fight between our hero and what seems to be a person who can split into three!
The climax of the film starts inside the towering statue, and moves to an all out brawl across, over and around a team of running horses.
Dee is unshakeable and tenacious, chasing down his leads, battling anyone who stands in his way, and learns he can’t trust anyone.
His sometimes allies and sometimes foes include Jing’er (Bingbing Li), who makes use of a sword and a whip. She is loyal to the Empress, but is intrigued and attracted to Dee.
He’s also at odds and works with Pei Donglai (Chao Deng), who is also investigating the crimes.
As Dee unravels all the threads of the mystery, he follows them unwaveringly, loyal to the country if not its head.
The film is filled with fantastical scenes, and seems to combine noir, fantasy, action, political thriller, and a murder mystery all into one colorfully shot package. It doesn’t always work, but it is a lot of fun.
There are a series of stories featuring this character. He was created by an anonymous author in the 18th-century, though loosely based on an actual person, writer Robert van Gulik translated the first story when he found it, and then later wrote his own.
I would be very interested to see more from this character revisited in further films or perhaps I’ll chase down some of the stories.
Have you read them?