Hey folks, Harry here... Zorachus chimed in last time with the latest John Woo collaboration... this time he's got the Godfather of Hong Kong film... and University of Texas alumni, Tsui Hark with his latest, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME... which is just an awesome title, in the highest goofy style. So... Let's see what Zorachus has for us....
Zorachus here, and I just saw Tsui Hark's newest movie.
Back during the eighties, he was the primary driving force in Hong Kong New Wave cinema...as a producer, he gave us A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Chinese Ghost Story, and Swordsman Two; he directed Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, and Green Snake, and had his fingerprints on a slew of other great flicks. It would also be pretty fair to say that he put Jet Li and ace action director Ching Siu Tung on the map, and imparted a whole new direction to Bridget Lin's career. But he never became a big deal in the US...oh, he did a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme films, but he was far overshadowed by John Woo. Also, his Hong Kong output dropped way off after the Red takeover in '97...Time and Tide in 2000 was a good gunfight movie, and the 2001 Zu was fun, but there was a long dry spell after that.
Well, he's back now with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a great big period fantasy thing that's pretty reminiscent of his earlier swordplay films. Supposedly, it's a mystery---detective and mystery are right there in the title---but mostly it's about action and hairdos and overall wierdness. The first time I watched it, I had some trouble sorting it all out, but I always had trouble making sense of his movies—-usually, there'd be a initial period of complete confusion, but ultimately, you'd sort of have an idea what was happening in time for the climactic killfest. You just had to roll with it---and you still do, dammit!
In Dee, the titular character is based on an actual guy, Di Renjie, who was a judge/detective back in the Tang dynasty...I don't think this movie is a true story, though. Regent Wu Zetian (Carinna Lau) is hellbent on becoming the first female emperor, and is pushing hard to have a gigantic statue---I mean really gigantic--- completed in time for her coronation. But she's unpopular with a lot of folks because she's a girl (and a torturing tyrant), and someone is killing the guys overseeing her pet project. When they step out into sunlight, they burst into flames and are swiftly reduced to little heaps of black stuff. Anxious to keep everything on schedule, Wu realizes she'd better enlist the aid of Judge Dee(Andy Lau), even though he despises her despotic ways and he's in prison because she put him there. She assigns her Bridget Lin-esque girlfriend Shangguan Wan'er (Li Bing Bing) to get Dee out and watch his back, and they're accompanied by Peng Donglai (played by Chao Deng) a crabby swordslinging judge/albino. In the course of the investigation, we get a descent into a underworld kinda inspired by the Troll Market in that last Hellboy movie, subterranean rivers where pilings shoot up and flip your boat around, goony Hensonesque puppets armed with circular sawblades and operated by ninjas, fire turtles, “Shoehorn” Richard Ng turning into dwarf pop star teddy Robin Kwan, attacks by crazed CG deer in a courtyard filled with animal-headed statues, Spanish-speaking Arab ambassadors in Roman armor, and the very best assassination weapon ever.
Oh, and lots of lots of guys turning into stumbling human torches...sometimes it kicks off with black smoke billowing out of their eyes...most unsettling.
Hark's movies used to be characterized by ingenious practical effects, served up by the aforementioned Ching Siu Tung, whom he should go back to working with...Dee relies way too much on digital stuff, and it's uneven at best. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's phony-looking but still compelling because it's so gruesome (the burnings are like that), and sometimes it's just lousy. Movie does look like they spent a shitload on it, and it's pretty nifty as eye-candy. The actors are all very watchable; Carinna Lau is tres creepy as the big-haired would-be emperor, Andy Lau is Andy Lau, which is generally fine, and Li Bing Bing is a giant cutey pie, albeit a very fierce one....Tony Leung Kar Fai, one of my favorite HK actors, has a good role as master builder mutilated on Wu's orders. Sammo Hung arranged the fights and stunts, and did his usual bangup job. If all this sounds like your cup of tea, I say blow on it and ingest. Even when I wasn't buying what was going on, I was never bored, and it was very nice to see some truly Harky lunacy again.
Over and out.