Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2012-01-18
In “Detective Dee and the Secret of the Phantom Flame” Tsui Hark creates a world based on historical fact—the beginning of the reign of Wu Zetian, the first (and, so far, only female ruler of China) in 690 AD. It has square rigged ships from the 18th century, industrial techniques from the 19th century and a relatively modern view of the role of women in society. It includes trusted advisors to the Empress dying while bursting into flame, a band of assassins armed with deadly dart-like arrows who, like the Spanish Inquisition, are never expected but who always show up and people with the ability to change gender and age by twisting wires implanted in their brains. There are talking deer, exploding beetles and a bird that senses danger. Everyone—the good, the bad and the ambiguous—can jump to and from rooftops, stack up the bodies of enemies like cordwood and always look great while doing it. It is a wuxia historical mystery with sumptuous costumes and flashy, perfectly planned and executed action choreography (Sammo Hung) and astonishing sets whether they were built in a CGI computer, a model shop or on a soundstage. It doesn’t quite hold together and nitpickers will find some loose ends but “Detective Dee” is a terrific movie: exciting, romantic and lots of fun.

Andy Lau and Li Bing-Bing take care of most of the human element. Carina Lau does a good job with a thankless role, the evil Empress; Tony Leung Ka-Fai rings the changes from cringing to stoic to insane and makes us believe him; Deng Chao has a good time as the extremely pale (and creepy) official who figures things out. Li Bing-Bing smolders and pouts, making no secret of her total dedication to the Empress, willing to die or kill in her service while Any Lau is stoic, charming where appropriate, ruthless where necessary. The shaving scene with the two of them (actually much more than just shaving) is a high point of the movie.
Reviewer Score: 8