Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the latest martial arts period epic from visionary “New Wave” director Tsui Hark, borrows from the lives of historical figures Di Renjie and Empress Wu, injecting hard-hitting action and supernatural elements into one very pretty package.
In the days leading up to her coronation, the most powerful woman in China is the target of a series of sinister attacks orchestrated to undermine her authority. When several high-ranking officials are murdered by a mysterious poison that causes spontaneous combustion, Empress Wu is forced to enlist the aid of the brilliant and noble Detective Dee, played by the extremely versatile Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers).
With dazzling fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung (Ip Man, Kung Fu Hustle), a respected actor and director in his own right, the film’s intense martial arts action soars. Each of the main characters is cleverly personified by fighting style and choice of weapon. The enigmatic Jing’er, played by the lovely Li BingBing (The Forbidden Kingdom), uses a deadly whip, while Bei Donglai (Chao Deng), a brash, young official recruited to assist with the investigation, favors a humongous double-bladed ax. But perhaps the most original weapon is the mace wielded by Detective Dee himself: With a “listening” mode that’s activated during combat, the mace enables the detective to “hear” weakness in the weapons of his opponents.
The psychological duels that play out in and among the physical martial arts action add an extra layer of fun. Sent to prison for treason eight years earlier for speaking out against the scheming Wu (played with delicious control by Carina Lau of Infernal Affairs 2), Dee is now forced to solve a dangerous mystery for the treacherous monarch who destroyed his life. Watching the sparks fly between the two actors during their initial meeting is delightful, as they mentally joust and jockey for control of the situation.
The culturally progressive Tang Dynasty is captured by Hark through sumptuous art direction and gorgeous photography. Bruce Yu’s costumes are stunning — particularly the haughty arrogance evident in his designs for Empress Wu, which could frankly, make Padme Amidala look like she shops at the Naboo equivalent of Wal-Mart.
Supernatural elements are woven throughout the imaginative tapestry created by Hark, and thankfully, there isn’t a werewolf or vampire to be found. Instead, the director employs a mysterious and murderous royal sorcerer, and depicts exotic fire beetles and the moody atmospheric waterways of “Ghost Market.” He also manages to come up with what is probably most the most inventive method of assassination ever committed to celluloid.
In short, amazing action, terrific performances and gorgeous photography make Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame a fun and frenetic trip back in time.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, from Indomina Releasing, opens today in select theaters.
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