A giant, hollow Buddha that dwarfs a city, spontaneous combustion, uneasy shapeshifting and gravity-defying martial arts: These are the far-reaching pleasures of “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” the energetic period fantasy epic from stalwart Chinese director Tsui Hark.
While there’s a casual dissonance to each twist in its winding plot that results in a disconnected and emotionally vapid experience, “Detective Dee” unquestionably achieves the escapism it intends. Dee (Andy Lau) is a thin, obvious character, but he’s just solid enough to push the ride of a story along.
With a thundering soundtrack, soaring cameras and more than a few special effects, Hark immediately announces a lively world on the brink of mayhem, if not great consequence. His China of 689 A.D. is a place of extreme political upheaval, but not complexity. Carina Lau plays Empress Wu Zetian, a fierce woman on the brink of becoming the country’s first Empress and facing potential insurrection. Her situation gets worse when a foreign inspection of the massive commemorative statue overlooking the city ends with a top official inexplicably bursting into flames. A second death follows by the same means moments later.
Nervous about her public standing, the leader releases slick investigator Dee from the prison where she placed him for treason years earlier and sets him loose on the trail. Joining forces with the Empress’ seductive assistant, Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li), Dee launches on a hunt that finds him dodging arrows at every turn.
That’s pretty much a literal description: At a certain point, “Detective Dee” swaps story for a barrage of far-reaching action sequences, with occasional terse exchanges to allow the investigator to unwind some of his new (but always somewhat foggy) evidence. By the time the identity of the culprit behind the flame-killings is revealed, Hark has already found his climax in the accumulation of threats Dee continually navigates, from underworld sword-fighting in a murky dungeon to angry hordes of CGI deer.
Based on the “Judge Dee” character created by Robert van Gulik, the detective is a lone wolf set loose in a chain of obstacles he must navigate with a combination of wit and physical prowess. There are themes involving wartime trauma used to prop up his own resentment for the Empress-to-be, but they have less relevance than the movie’s constant forward motion.
Hark has a phenomenal sense for big-screen theatrics, framing his fictional China in wide shots that capture the action but give the fabricated universe room to breathe. Unfortunately, its inhabitants don’t face the same fate: The generally humorless tone works against a playful scenario, deadening the potential to provide Dee and his cohorts with the psychological depth that would turn them into memorable characters.
Nevertheless, Hark delivers a highly enjoyable alternative to Western blockbusters by simply keeping the narrative in flux with a series of well-executed sequences — a cinema of distraction, if you will. The opening title card sets the scene, concluding that “all hell was about to break loose.” In other words: Hold onto your seats.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already a box-office hit in China, “Detective Dee” played the festival circuit last year and was widely acclaimed during that time. Released this Friday in New York, followed by a national rollout in 20 major cities, it’s unlikely to become a major commercial hit. However, fans of the genre and Chinese cinema in general should have enough interest to give the movie a solid commercial foundation.