By Steven Erickson
Press Play Contributor
The biggest star of Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame isn’t Andy Lau or Carina Lau, but rather a 66 yard statue of the Buddha. While the creation probably never existed outside of a computer program — the filmmakers obviously constructed elaborate sets to represent its interior — it’s a wonder to behold, its beauty enhanced by the way director Tsui Hark frames it against pastel clouds and a glowing sun. The Towering Buddha is an argument in favor of the possibilities of CGI.
There are several lines running through Tsui’s oeuvre, including an interest in Chinese history (reflected in Detective Dee’s 7th-century-A.D. setting) and a tendency to create strong female characters (also displayed here), but his interest in special effects connects Detective Dee with the early '80s films that won the Hong Kong director a cult following in the West. For Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain, made in 1983, he brought effects technicians from Hollywood, and the result is a film whose special effects almost overwhelm the narrative. While most American directors try to use special effects seamlessly, Tsui, with his use of devices like optical printers, gave the impression of running wild. I don’t mean that as a criticism; Zu remains an exhilarating blast, one that seems drunk on the possibilities of filmmaking. Twenty-eight years later, the same can be said for Detective Dee.
The Towering Buddha is the crowning glory of Detective Dee’s effects, but the rest are less convincing. When characters burst into flames, the fire and smoke are obviously superimposed. The film offers up the strange concept of “transfiguration,” in which some characters’ faces are held in place by acupuncture needles. When the needles are removed, their faces suddenly distort. However, Tsui has one other major trick up his sleeve. In one scene, while under attack, Detective Dee is drugged by “sleeping smoke,” and the film's images turn into gorgeous lysergic smears, as if Gaspar Noé had just stepped behind the camera.
As Detective Dee begins, a foreign dignitary is visiting the Towering Buddha. After moving an amulet, one of his Chinese hosts suddenly bursts into flame; six other men under the command of Empress Wu (Carina Lau) suffer the same fate. On the eve of her coronation, she seeks the help of Detective Dee (Andy Lau), whom she had previously imprisoned. His investigations turn up a trail of poisoned water, mysterious amulets and venomous beetles, ultimately leading to a plot against the Empress.
The Empress Wu and Detective Dee were real people. In fictionalizing them, Tsui returns to the strategy of his Once Upon A Time In China series, which one critic likened to a Shaft sequel in which Malcolm X teamed up with the title character. However, Dee has a long history as a fictional character, beginning with an anonymously written 19th-century Chinese novel, translated by Robert van Gulik, who went on to write 17 more novels about the character. With stories in various languages, more authors have picked up the baton following van Gulik's death in 1967.
Detective Dee combines feminist sympathies with a strain of conservatism. Detective Dee laments Empress Wu’s reliance on torture to gain power, suggesting it as one reason people dislike her. However, he ultimately forgives her use of violence. The film’s rebels offer no legitimate criticism of the Empress, instead referring to her as “the bitch” and acting mostly out of sheer misogyny. Carina Lau’s performance is remarkable, embodying a number of potentially contradictory traits. The Empress seems comfortable with great power and privilege, but at the same time she knows her paranoia is justified by her position, as her power could come crashing down at any moment. For all of her flaws, one leaves Detective Dee with respect for Empress Wu.
Long after his heyday in the '80s and early '90s, Tsui’s style, which once seemed so adventurous and untamed, now looks classical compared to the likes of Paul Greengrass (let alone Michael Bay). His fondness for long shots is rare among contemporary action directors, and his skill at balancing set pieces and narrative development has returned since going missing after 1995’s The Blade. The mystery of Detective Dee often feels like an excuse to stage elaborate stunts, as when a seduction attempt turns into an attack by hundreds of arrows. That said, it has its failings as a detective story, as Tsui seems to lose interest in that element of the film halfway through, leaving one to wonder if Lin Qianyu’s source novel is any more satisfying as a mystery.
Detective Dee feels like a bid to start a new franchise; after all, van Gulik was able to keep the character going for 17 books. The film combines Chinese and Hollywood influences in a way that, like much of Tsui’s work, feels fresh. Sure, James Cameron or Peter Jackson might be able to create an image as beautiful as the Towering Buddha, but Avatar and The Lovely Bones suggest that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Detective Dee brings back the excitement of great pop cinema that drew cinephiles to Hong Kong in the first place.
Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, Fandor's blog, the Nashville Scene, Film Comment, The Atlantic website and other publications. He has made four short films, the most recent being 2009's "Squawk".