Review: Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010)

Starring Andy Lau, Li BingBing, Carina Lau, Deng Chao, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin

Fight Choreography by Sammo Hung

Directed by Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark is a Hong Kong director who has spent his career making special-effects laden martial arts films, pioneering the use of wire harnesses in new ways, and changed Hong Kong cinema, giving Jet Li his classic film series Once Upon A Time In China. Tsui has served more as a producer for Hong Kong film and TV series, but has once again stepped behind the camera to start a new act in his storied career, and creates a pulp character that combines crime solving arts of Sherlock Holmes with the adventure of the Indiana Jones films with a healthy dose of kung-fu to top it off.

Detective Dee finds that China is about to crown its first Empress Wu Zeitan (C. Lau) to the throne, which has caused an uprising of different rebel factions aimed to assassinate her. She commissions a giant statue likeness of her to be erected before her coronation, but soon the men in charge of the statue’s construction start dying off by spontaneously combusting, bursting into flames from the inside and dying painfully. Zeitan then meets with the Chaplain, a mystic speaking deer, who tells her that to solve the mystery of why these men are dying and how, she’ll need to release Detective Dee (A. Lau), a commissioner under the old Emperor who was imprisoned for rebelling against Zeitan. She has Dee freed by her assistant Jing’er (Bingbing) just as he is attacked by assassins. Dee, always a step ahead of nearly everyone, takes the job offered by Zeitan, and as he follows the clues he has help from Jing’er and the albino Pei Donglai (Chao) who are there to make sure that Dee succeeds, but also that he doesn’t try to betray the queen. Dee also finds that he has to deal with the Prince who wants the throne as well, and Dee finds that everyone, himself included, may have been chess pieces put into play by an enemy who will see the future Empress dead…

Detective Dee is the without a doubt one of the best films Tsui Hark has done in quite a while. The fantasy, mystery and kung-fu blend together better than many films Hark has tried in the past, with well-written characters and a great one in Detective Dee himself. Andy Lau does a great job with Dee, as the audience knows that he is a good man, but wary as to whether his intentions are to help or hurt the new Empress, who isn’t exactly a picture of kindness, well-played by Carina Lau, who is an Empress who will use anyone and everyone to get–and keep–the throne of China. Li Bing Bing also brings gusto as the fiery Jing’er, whose distrust of Dee and devotion to the Empress hints that her love for the Empress may be more than just simple loyalty to a new queen. It’s always great to see the great Hong Kong cinema comedian Richard Ng, and the always funny Teddy Robin (Gallants) The special effects are well done, as Hong Kong cinema continues to inch closer to Hollywood effects work,  and the cinematography is gorgeous.

The fights themselves aren’t overly long, and well choreographed by Sammo Hung, including a great prison fight toward the beginning between Dee and a group of  assassins, and also midway through the film as they have to fight off assassins and deadly…puppets in the Ghost Market battle. Sammo has always had a knack for matching the fight choreography to the story and atmosphere of a film, and doesn’t disappoint here. The stunt work is also well done, and there is some use of wires, but nothing that would distract anyone from the action.

Kiai-Kick’s Grade: 8.5

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a successful ode to the old school matinee serials that will hopefully spin-off sequels with the terrific Andy Lau and the legendary Tsui Hark! 

NEXT: Sasha Mitchell takes over for JCVD with help from Dennis Chan in Kickboxer 2!

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  1. I just watched the film on Netflix. WOW what a powerful film and what a powerful message. Shatuo became what he hated. All that diabolical hatred inspired him to hatch a scheme to kill the Empress. Here is a well-crafted story of a devilishly wicked woman. Her words, “One’s aim to achieve greatness, everyone is expendable,” is a notorious declaration of a poisonous mixture of subterfuge, collusion, protected covert activity, conspiracy all fine tuned by her evil master craftsmanship. I am taking a course on the history of films from their inception in China and the US. I am on the 1920’s and I will tell you some folks are just as low down and dirty today as they were in those earlier generations. There are so many elements of this film that are insightful, noteworthy and simply brilliant. For example the progression of the relationship between Detective Dee, Shang guan Jing’er and Donglai. In the “almost” seduction scene between Shangguan Jing’er which she initiates, Detective Dee obtains an eyeballing and glimpse of her real character. Earlier, he makes mention of her, “murderous look.” It seems as though licentious and lasciviousness behavior is characteristic of the class of those notorious females greedy for power and control who will make vulnerable, poor souls suffer. Has anyone heard of celibacy in the film-making industry or in real-life these days? In the land of make-believe and playing make-believe, it seems reality is not for certain geographic target populations and demographic populations. Research and a mini-fact-finding-mission indicates that the vintage Charlie Chan and Thin Man respective episodes are filled with similar intrigue as this film. I love Andy Lau’s work. I am a great fan of his. His movies are always so well-made with strong narrative content and visual infrastructures. I loved this movie. It was very entertaining.


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