"Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame"
With the rise of China's first female ruler there came dissent. Also, there came spontaneous combustion, according to Tsui Hark's colorful, madcap mystery, where a poison has entered the bloodstream of several top advisers. No one knows they've been poisoned, of course, until they are greeted by sunlight, and the chemical compound erupts, flames emerging from their insides. This pseudo-science nightmare means only one thing: ruler Wu Zetian must unleash China's top detective (Andy Lau) who is in prison, and has fairly outspoken against her appointment. Oops.
"Detective Dee" is filled with spectacular wuxia sequences and a sharp art direction blossoming with loud, defiant reds against more drab, pedestrian backgrounds. But the fantastical elements, like a talking deer who on the surface seems more plausible than the the accompanying real-world explanation, clash against the deadly serious tone, which Hark seems to use as an excuse to confuse the story with actual historical fiction. As such, "Detective Dee" has imagination and visual flare to spare, but it's a near-joyless experience peppered with lively eye-candy rather than a genuinely intriguing movie. Hark shows moments of sly wit, but his attitude is far too dry for something that feels like it should be a more supernatural, eastern take on "Sherlock Holmes." [C+]
Young woman Asuka's future is on the right track: she's got a decent job, her fiance is very caring, and every so often the world around her will break into a full-blown musical bit. Complications arrive in the form of a kappa, a human-like creature with a beak, a tortoise shell, and a dome that requires constant watering. This is Aoki, an old high school friend of hers that drowned at 17, now reincarnated as this mythical being and determined to stay by her side. Despite her promising life, she takes an affection to Aoki which abruptly derails her squeaky-clean life, especially when he reveals the true nature of his arrival.
A strange hybrid of musical and soft-core porn, "Underwater Love" often fails in its batshit nature. Thankfully it never feels forced (the sex scenes, especially with the kappa, are particularly funny), but there's not a whole lot of spirit here, especially in the musical scenes which feel very sterilized and weak. Often times they consist of a lone character dancing around and singing a happy ditty after a depressing scene, but the humor of the juxtaposition wears thin due to their excessive length and lack of juice. You wouldn't know it was shot by the consistently-name-dropped cinematographer Christopher Doyle; here he keeps the tricks to a minimum and makes pretty faceless work, which is a shame considering the movie could use his oomph. Shinji Imaoka's flick tries to marry the weird and dramatic much like "The Taste of Tea" so perfectly did, and though he gets props for trying something different, the result is often boring and lifeless. [C]
"Let The Bullets Fly"
Who is "Pocky" Zhang? The gags fly as quickly as the titular bullets in this Chinese comedy, the highest grossing in Chinese history, that you'll be excused for taking a bit of time to figure it out. The mythic name is bandied about during a complex crime story involving a gang of bandits in 1920's China who decide to turn a failed robbery into a chance for redemption. With the accidental death of the governor, the man who would be Pocky (writer/director Jiang Wen) decides to ride into town and assist the townspeople with the governor's fortune.
It's far from simple, as his kindhearted ruse is transparent to local crime boss Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat, having a great time). Huang isn't the type of criminal who will let someone wander into town and spoil the townspeople. What happens next are a series of mindgames between Pocky and Huang as both of them toy with their respective identities towards the public, muddying the line that separates them as Samaritan and Opportunist. "Let The Bullets Fly" is underwhelming in the action department, its combat sequences snappy but ill-realized and oft-confusing. Where it sings is during the rat-a-tat-tat wordplay between the cast as they endlessly try to outwit each other despite notably weak intellectual means. It's a dash of Shaw Brothers, with a hefty helping of Marx. [B]
-with additional reporting by Christopher Bell