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Tsui Hark is largely responsible for my personal love of Hong Kong cinema. Like most Americans my age, my real introduction to martial arts movies came in the form of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films.  But thanks to John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, and a now defunct Discovery Channel series called The Incredibly Strange Film Show, (which ran on the channel in 1990 after an initial run on UK television in 1989) I discovered Tsui’s early masterpiece – Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. This highly fantastical, wire-fu melodrama/slapstick comedy hasn’t aged as well as I might have preferred, and I can’t exactly except everyone to love it as much as I do, but I still recommend it to anyone looking to experience the eclectic power of Eastern cinema, and would include it without question in the same conversations as Wong Kar-wai’s, Zhang Yimou and John Woo’s best work. It’s likely that because I discovered Zu Warriors at a relatively young age (probably 11 or 12) that I was able to take Tsui’s bizarre mix of genres and erratic storytelling for granted, and develop a taste for more of the same as I got older. Thanks to Tsui, I also discovered similar wire-fu/fantasy/comedies like Ching Siu-tung’s Chinese Ghost Story (which Tsui produced, and arguably co-directed), Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair, Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire, and Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind at a relatively young age. It’s also worth noting that as a producer Tsui also ushered important non-fantasy pictures like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer into existence.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame
Tsui himself took the director’s reins on plenty of impressive films including the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy (the films that rocketed Jet Li into superstardom), the extremely fanciful and fantastical Green Snake, Peking Opera Blues, The Lovers and The Blade. But like John Woo ( Face-Off not withstanding) and Ringo Lam, Tsui’s talents largely failed him when Hollywood came calling in the ‘90s. Tsui’s only American directorial efforts are Double Team and Knock Off, both of which star Jean-Claude Van Damme at his career worst. Double Team was also basketball star Dennis Rodman’s motion picture debut, and is easily one of the worst major motion pictures I’ve ever seen. After returning to China, Tsui made an awful, all-star pseudo-remake of Zu Warriors entitled The Legend of Zu, a largely forgettable sequel to The Black Mask ( City of Masks), and a pretty, but empty homage to Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai called The Seven Swords. Having missed Tsui’s last few films (I’ve heard mixed things), I was close to desperate for a real return to form from him as a director, specifically something big and fun. Early buzz on Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame had me excited.

Detective Dee isn’t a perfect film, but it is a perfect blend of Tsui’s classic sensibilities, traditional Chinese historical fiction, and modern Hollywood’s most popular visual themes. It’s also breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s a ten times larger than life epic, where hyper colourful backdrops threaten to swallow up the actors, and characters can’t even ascend a set of stairs without spectacular acrobatics. But it’s also a relatively personal story about only a handful of surprisingly realistic characters that battle constantly against the intimidating scale. Tsui’s patented brand of oddball comedy is alive and well here too, and that may be the thing I’ve missed most in recent years. Besides the more obvious slapstick gags, occasionally hammy characters, and pitch-perfect sarcasm, Tsui takes full advantage of his soft-fantasy setting to explore some pretty incredible absurdities. The persistent levity of the first half of the film also allows Tsui to adequately earn the heavier drama, and even the tragedy of the latter half. I’m often quite critical of melodrama in modern Chinese productions, but this time I was genuinely touched. Not as touched as I may have been by many other films, but still touched. The consistent balance of genres, visual elements and thematic intonation is the film’s major strength, and what will likely transcend the foreign nature of the story and characters.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame
The story follows a ‘true legend’ of a Tang Dynasty official named Di Renjie, who is compared in the press materials to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. The character/actual person was made popular outside of China thanks to a series of pulp mysteries by Robert van Gulik. In this story a series of loyal senior officials are violently dying from what appears to be spontaneous internal combustion. These deaths threaten to delay the inauguration of Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), China’s first and only Empress. The Empress summons the infamous Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who she herself had sent to prison eight years earlier for conspiring against her. Dee jumps at the chance to solve the case, but is hampered when he is assigned two assistants – Wu Zetian's assistant Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), and Pei Donglai the Albino Detective (Deng Chao). Meanwhile, the assassination plot thickens.

Tsui and screenwriter Chen Kuofu make the interesting choice of setting the film after Dee’s forced retirement, so to speak. This separates Detective Dee from the majority of Hollywood superhero movies over the last decade (including the Sherlock Holmes and James Bond reboots), which are normally either a direct origin story, or a definitively early adventure. I have to admit I had a hard time following parts of the film, and this mostly had to do with me not understanding some of the era politics, and Di Renjie’s history as both a historical and fictional character (it was also kind of hard to look away from the beautiful imagery to read the subtitles, but that’s hardly a problem). The choice to set this story later in the fictional Dee’s history helps to create the appropriate sense of legend, however, and I kind of enjoyed the sense of watching the sequel to a film that was never made (there was a Di Renjie TV series, apparently). For the most part the culture shock is a slightly bigger problem than Fellowship of the Ring was the first time I saw it, having not read the book, but Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t a mystery story on top of being a bit foreign to my sensibilities. Hark and Kuofu mostly fill in the important plot gaps, but I was so busy keeping up (and there are some wacky doings going on here) that I didn’t have much time to make any guesses in reference to the whodunit aspects of the plot. Still, I suspect even if I had been able to keep up enough to make educated guesses I seriously doubt I’d be prepared for the final fourth of the story, which features some genuine surprises.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame
Martial arts choreography master Yuen Woo-Ping also made a sort of ‘come back’ film recently (even more of a come back than Tsui, who hadn’t really gone away) entitled True Legend,  and funnily enough super-star Andy Lau starred in that one too (Nope, I shouldn't have trusted my memory, that was Vincent Zhao. Thanks to reader gwailo for pointing this out). American audiences probably don’t understand that Lau is the likely biggest star in the world. He’s an award winning actor who’s also a box office draw, he’s a cover model, he sings incredibly popular music, and he’s quite good with the martial arts. He’s Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Justin Timberlake and Jet Li all in one package. As a viewer I find myself in a strange place where I generally trust his choice in roles (since he can get anything he wants), but am sort of tired of seeing his face in everything. Dee is sardonic and charming, which is exactly what Lau does best. I can never take him entirely seriously in his hyper-stoic roles. Lau is evenly supported by Li Bingbing, who fills the traditional Tsui Hark model of a strong and sexy female, and a warm Tony Leung Ka-fai, but most scenes are stolen by Chao Deng, who’s given the especially meaty role of Pei Donglai – an antagonist, side-kick, hardass, and a coming of age story rolled into one.

The fights here were choreographed by the great Sammo Hung, a long time collaborator of Tsui’s who is also credited as directing the fight scenes, and who likely had sizable input on the entire film’s direction (Tsui often collaborates as a director). What’s refreshing about the action in this film as opposed to the many other recent Hung-choreographed films is how playful it is. I’ve quite enjoyed Hung’s spree of brutal, definitely R-rated fisticuffs, but like his ‘little brother’ Jackie Chan, Hung got his start in comedy. He was also quite famous for more special effects driven, fantasy based choreography for some time, so even though the digital effects here aren’t quite up to some of the standards set by Detective Dee’s Hollywood counterparts (we’re talking $20 million vs. $200 million here), Hung brings the right mix of realism and flashy hyperbole. The wirework is plenty graceful, and the landings are more weighted than usual, which adds a hint more of believability to the mix. Hung also maintains a strong sense of geography, even in Tsui’s busiest production design, which is more than we can say for the aforementioned Hollywood counterparts. Wuxia fanatics should be warned, however, that Detective Dee isn’t exactly what I’d call a fight heavy film. There are spectacular fisticuffs, but they’re simply a part of a mixed mystery/fantasy/comedy/period/wuxia hybrid (there’s even a hint of horror), and none of these elements takes full precedence over any other by any real margin. Excepting basically two major sequences, the bulk of the action here is of the adventure variety, more like Tsui and Hung’s version of an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. And that’s not a bad thing.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame

Video


As far as I can recall Detective Dee is the first big release Chinese film I’ve seen shot on Red One cameras. This, along with the film’s rather sizable budget, set my expectations very high for this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfers. Vevendi Entertainment has dropped the ball hard in the past, but for the most part I am not disappointed. As stated in the feature section, Detective Dee is an incredibly ornate and colourful film, so the RAW Red format data’s super-sharp and super-clear abilities are well utilized. This transfer excels in its sharpness, both in the incredible textures of close-up details, and in the complex, layered backgrounds. I say this a lot in my reviews (there are only so many ways to praise a good transfer), but this time the mix of superior digital HD format, and the film’s hyper baroque production and art design leads to incredibly complex compositions, the kind I don’t always expect even in the Blu-ray age. The clarity does minor damage to some of the digital backdrops, which appear far too smooth in comparison to the intricately detailed concrete sets and costumes. The digital effects don’t look very good altogether, actually, but not in anyway that the transfer itself needs to take blame. The Red One’s smooth blending abilities are well utilized in terms of mixed colours in lighting, which combine beautifully with no noticeable banding effects. The palette features a basic theme of warm amber elements juxtaposed against steady blues, but this vibrant film doesn’t really rest on any constant palette mix for too long. There are plenty of rich greens and blindingly bright reds here too, and almost everything both separates sharply and remains consistent. Black and white levels follow suit. There’s an uptake in the minor digital noise on a few odd, inconsistently detailed shots, but the most consistent issue is the blurring, and even slight ghosting that occurs during some of the action scenes. I suspect this may be an issue of Tsui messing with the frame rate abilities of the Red One cameras, and not a mastering process error.

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin track isn’t quite the best of its kind, but it’s pretty aggressive. Sometimes the choices made by production in terms of sound are a bit strange, especially when it comes to ‘stage whispering’, but these all seem to have been done with purpose. The film opens with a tour of the massive central Buddha statue, and its noisy construction acts as a backdrop for the early plot setup. This strong introduction to the universe fills the channels with the busy echo of metal clanging against metal, wood winding against wood, and workers yammering at each other. All the while the dialogue in the center channel is presented strongly and clearly (though I did notice the lip-sync was a bit off at some other points throughout the film). The most incredible moments from here are, for the most part, the fight scenes, which feature the usual multi-channel whoosh, and heavy LFE impact. Dee’s battles with mystical forces (which should not be specified for the sake of spoilers) are pretty clearly the mix’s most effective use of directional movement. Other standout aural moments include a spectacular rainstorm, an elephantine arrow attack, an eerie decent into a Hades-like black market, and the crisp twang of booby trap wires.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame

Extras


The extras begin with The Making of Detective Dee (4:10, SD), a fluffy, elongated trailer that includes brief interviews with writer Chen Kuofu, director Tsui Hark, producer Jinwen (Peggy) Li, VFX supervisor Nam Sang-woo, and action director Sammo Hung. It includes glimpses of the behind the scenes process, and talks up the film’s scope quite a bit. Creating the Characters (5:20, SD) follows suit, talking up the production and art design, and includes more interviews with production designer James Chiu, and actors Carina Lau, Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, and Deng Chao. Weapons, Stunts, and Action (3:50, SD) kind of speaks for itself, and includes interviews with the usual suspects, along with some brief footage that seems to verify that Hung and Tsui co-directed the big action spectacle. The World of Dee (5:20, SD) finishes out the featurettes with a more specific look at the digital effects. Other extras include three image galleries (cast, behind the scenes, posters), an international trailer, and trailers for other Vivendi releases.

Detective Dee and the Mysterey of the Phantom Flame

Overall


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is mostly what I needed from Tsui Hark at this point in his career, and marks a definitive return to form based on what I’ve seen from the director’s more recent catalog (it’s entirely possible that The Warrior, Missing, and All About Women are great films). It’s not quite going to make a list of new mixed genre classics, but I suspect I’ll be visiting it again, which is not something I can say all that often these days. This Blu-ray’s 1080p transfer looks pretty spectacular to me, and the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is loud, wide and busy. The only real downside is that the extras are disappointing and fluffy.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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