Sunday, November 18, 2012

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I mentioned this movie briefly during my review of "The Man With the Iron Fists" mostly as a counterpoint to how you could have a modern kung-fu movie with a complex plot and absurd action and still be good.  However, I feel that a two sentence blurb really didn't do any of the movies I mentioned very much justice, and "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" really needed a bit more of my special touch.  It also helps that this was the second or third best film of 2011*, and I did not even know this movie even existed until just August.  Let me correct this now.

Detective Dee (or "Judge Di") is a historical Chinese figure from the reign of Empress Wu during the Tang Dynasty, who served as her finest minister and helped legitimize her unique position as the only true female Emperor.  That doesn't really matter for this movie, because in the 20th century Detective Dee was found by the Dutch author, Robert van Gulik, who turned him into the Chinese Sherlock Holmes.  The film version that I'm speaking of seems to be a Chinese reaction to the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes series.  "If Guy Ritchie can turn Sherlock Holmes into a psychic boxer, certainly we can turn Detective Dee into a kung-fu master!"  So celebrated Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, best known for directing "Once Upon a Time in China", stepped up to the bat and made what is easily my favorite Wuxia film**, and one of the best Chinese films ever made in my opinion.

Typically the Wuxia genre features two things I really like and one feature I really don't, so the movies seem to begin with a lot of promise, then degenerate - for me - into unsatisfaction.  I love the action, but they're only there to keep the cheap seats happy, I love the deep political plotlines and complex characters.  However, I don't think I've ever seen a Wuxia film that ended well, they almost always seem to end not with a big action climax like I'd like, but instead the main character submitted to his death and then you realize that aside from the kung-fu, the rest of the movie was just dreary, not fun.  Like "Hero" ends with Jet Li letting himself get devoured by a million arrows, which I suppose fits the theme of the movie well and "Hero" is a movie I respect, but its also an action movie and letting your invincible badass character get killed with such ease feels like an anticlimax.  "Detective Dee" however, is a far more silly movie than "Crouching Tiger" or "Hero" or "Curse of the Golden Flower".  This one has talking deer, and animated puppet kung-fu fighters, and people getting spontaneously combusted, and people's faces magically shifting, and a giant Buddha statue the size of the Empire State Building.  Its a colorful detective romp that combines the serious drama of Wuxia, but tempers it in the thrills of over-the-top action and the suspense of a well-done mystery plotline.  Maybe I'm just a lowest common denominator nimrod but I'll take the simply thrills over the complex emotions.

The movie opens with the oncoming coronation of the Empress Wu, who has been the de facto ruler of China ever since her husband died of mysterious circumstances.  Being the Empress, she for some reason decided to build a giant Buddha statue just outside her palace, a statue so large that it could stomp the Statue of Liberty into dust if it so wished.  This strikes me of something of a bad idea since if you're going to build a giant wobbly statue, obviously its going to come crashing down on you during the climax of the movie.  But that's not the current problem.  The problem is that a mysterious poison is setting people on fire.  They step outside and BAAM! they're incinerated into dust in seconds.  That should be your first hint that "Detective Dee" is largely a historical fantasy movie.  The other hint should be that everybody, even a blind octogenarian prisoner, knows kung-fu and can float with wire-fu.

Anyway, who is murdering these people?  Could it be the wrath of divine Heaven?  Could it be the Empress herself trying to come up with an excuse for a purge of her enemies?  Could it be the Empress's main rival, an elderly Prince?  Could it be the mysterious Imperial Chaplain, a magical figure who only appears and speaks to the outside world through a magical talking deer?  Or maybe its one of the other dozen or so disgruntled figures hanging around the Forbidden City, which is so well known for its intrigue.  But whoever is behind these killings, they also have an entire small army of henchmen including master puppeteers, enough archers to sink a battleship, and a cunning plan.  The only man who could ever unravel this grand scheme is the Detective Dee, a former minister for the last Emperor, who has spent the last seven years in jail after opposing the Empress Wu's ascension.  However, the Imperial Chaplain appears in deer form and tells the Empress directly that Detective Dee is the man they need.

Dee teams up with the Empress's right hand woman, Jing'er (who I'll call "Ginger" from here on out) for some very belligerent sexual tension.  He also is joined by Pei, an albino cop with an anger problem.  His albinoism is never even pointed out, its just a weird character trait that's included for - and do forgive the pun - color.  For a time these three become the main trio working together to uncover the mystery of the Phantom Flame.  All three know kung-fu, and Ginger is good enough to know how to fight even while functionally naked.  However, that's only the first half of the movie.  Intrigue, twists, and tragedy cut down this heroic party to the point that eventually its just Detective Dee alone against the entire enemy group.  However, before Dee stands alone, this odd trio do manage to work together in a few battles, the most spectacular of which is a subterranean bout against a puppet creature who can fire logs out of the water like torpedos.

Though Ginger and Pei are interesting characters in their own right, the movie is really about Detective Dee and the Empress Wu. Oddly, the Empress and Detective Dee, despite being ideological and political enemies, have nothing but the warmest accord and the Empress only appears in a good mood when Dee is speaking with her, its an interesting character dynamic. Its never stated directly, but its implied that the Empress murdered her husband to achieve her power, and by law she should be punished for it.  This is actually the position of the final mastermind foe.  Detective Dee, however, takes the most complex and morally grey position that the Empress is needed for the good of the nation, and if she were overthrown that their would only be chaos.  This seems to be a recurring theme in Wuxia films, as "Hero" basically ended the same way.  Some critics complain that these conclusions are justifications of China's fascism, but I'd say they're interesting political arguments.  The world isn't so Black and White that we can always punish wrongdoers.  Dee, however, makes sure to keep the moral highground and even forces the Empress to accept the return of legitimate Tang rulers after harmony has been restored.  As with "Hero", these movies are never celebrating brutal regimes, they accept them as terrible things that should eventually get removed, but only after they are no longer needed.  Its something of an excuse to keep China's Communist state in power, since "temporary situations" could be made to last forever, but at least its a revolutionist optimism amongst Chinese filmmakers that eventually better governments will be put in place and that China's government is not the final stage of development that their nation should take.

Anyway, that was an odd socio-political tangent, I should get back to the movie.

The action is colorful, stylized, and clearly impossible, but not quite so over-the-top that it descends into a cartoon like "The Man With the Iron Fists".  Well, it does get extremely silly in the fight against the Chaplain, where Detective Dee kicks a CG deer in the face.  Wow.  There are plenty of incredible feats of badassary in this movie.  At one point a guy catches the flat side of a log that's thrown at him with one hand and throws it back.  Detective Dee has to chase a foe from the underside of a horse in order to stay out of the sunlight and not get burned during the clever climax.  He also has a semi-magical mace that can break through any weapon.  Its a festival of action, and a great deal of fun.

Plus the sets are very well-designed and the movie is visually-rich.  Beyond some very poor deer effects, most of the movie is believable and avoids CG whenever possible, which was definitely not the case with RZA's movie.  The sets are extensive and massive, they actually built the inside of the Giant Buddha, and you can believe they're fighting within that structure.  There's a fight scene within an underground river, and its believable effects.

All around "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is a great movie.  My only complaint is that "Detective Dee" is a really silly-sounding name in English.  I keep thinking its actually "Detective Dee Dee and the Mystery of Ooooooooo... What Does This Button Do?"

* Standing behind the obvious "Drive" and perhaps the less-obvious "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".

** A lot of people really love "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", I was not impressed.  I really loved the action and I thought the characters were interesting, but I never got the sense that the story had ever really started.  It was much more of a drama and emotional film than a kung-fu movie, when of course, I went in wanted to see the problems solved with fists of fury.  Also, the movie turned into the Chinese version of Kate Chopin's "The Awakening", complete with out-of-nowhere suicide ending, and I don't particularly care for that novel.  Oh, you can argue with me for hours about the feminist deeper meanings of "The Awakening", I took a Women's Studies course too in college, I don't care, I don't like that book and I don't like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".  Having your rebellious female conveniently kill herself let's you keep her appear heroic and rebellious to the end without bothering to actually figure out the practicality of anything you're talking about.  I don't really care for "Madame Bovary" or "Anna Karenina" either for that matter.


  1. Since you're a fan of kung fu movies, do you like John Woo's movies?

    1. I'm sorry to say, I've only seen John Woo's Hollywood films - "Mission Impossible 2", "Face/Off", "Broken Arrow", all of which are pretty standard action films except MI:2, which was at least visually inspired. I haven't seen any of his native Hong Kong work, and I'm not really proud of that. What do you recommend?

    2. The only two that I've seen are "The Killer", and "Hard Boiled". Of those two, I liked "The Killer" the best. These days, the stories of either may not stand out terribly, but the gunplay is top notch.

    3. I've only seen Red Cliff, which was decent (the end battle was cool). Otherwise I'd recommend The Killer, since it inspired movies like The Matrix.

      - Ahmed

    4. Gah! How could I forget Red Cliff?! Idiot! Yeah, Red Cliff's pretty sick, it's a more traditional Ancient China Kung Fu flick about what is essentially the Chinese equivalent to the Battle of Thermopylae.

      Think Chinese "300", except actually good.

  2. Oooh this sounds good. I love me some good martial arts movies. I would rather watch cheesy chinese kung-fu movies then american action movies. Hey blue are you done with Xenoblade yet?