By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 6, 2011 at 8:18AM
Detective Dee and Mystery of the Phantom Flame is yet another magical adventure from Hong Kong action maestro Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Seven Swords). The $20-million film was funded entirely in China--as opposed to his old friend John Woo's $80 million Red Cliff, which was backed by a pool of investors from several Asian countries. This entertaining big-scale epic is packed with extravagant action and visual effects, including a towering hollow statue that is central to the mystery in the movie.
High cheek-boned Andy Lau stars as the canny, fearless, incorruptible policeman of the title. He's working for two powerful women, the power-hungry would-be first woman empress in China (Carina Lau), and her lieutenant (Bingbing Li), who is sent to aid the detective (and spy on him) in a toxic environment where many oppose the empress and nobody trusts anyone. Dee is trying to figure out why a series of people keep spontaneously bursting into flame—and keep the empress alive until her coronation. It’s Tsui’s homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hong Kong style.
Tsui would like to see more movies like his cross over with American audiences, who seem oddly culturally constrained, he says. "It's always a problem, the culture barrier, which becomes a separating factor, categorizing audiences." He realizes that educating audiences in eastern traditions is key to success. "Some people may not be in the habit of watching movies in other languages. It takes time. When I made the movie I wanted to make it for everyone."
Detective Dee, a hit in Asia and Europe and winner of Hong Kong Awards for best actress and director, takes off from a well-known Tang Dynasty story about Empress Wu, the only empress of China, and a famous detective from the period. Tsui, 61, was always curious about Empress Wu and wanted to put her in a story. "She was my idol," he says, who people looked up to as a strong and powerful woman in history. "She was the one and only one. She was a powerful emperor as a woman in China. After her, they didn't have any more of the female sex at such an important level in our politics. She's an outstanding character. I read good and bad things about her. Many people did bad things then. A lot of people give her positive marks for her intelligent handling of a lot of cases."
Tsui loved the idea of Empress Wu and Detective Dee, "this odd couple together in history--romantic and political at the same time." The novelist Lin Qianyu enhanced and romanticized Dee into a Sherlock Holmes character: "He was blown up to a bigger scale." In real life Dee didn't investigate cases, he was more of a famous Tang dynasty judge who saw 10,000 cases a year and became prime minister. (The character of Judge Dee was introduced in the west by Robert van Gulik, who wrote 17 Judge Dee mysteries; the series was extended by French author Frédéric Lenormand.)
Tsui loves visual effects--in fact his next film is in 3-D. He sees VFX as a means to an end, a tool for telling a story. "It's sort of a natural thing to me," he says on the phone from Hong Kong. "Not scary or threatening. Everything computer-generated has become very popular in our industry; I am concerned that the audience is demanding more. The CG looks similar in a lot of shots in movies. Whenever we in the industry use CG or a technique, software or hardware, we must be very careful to design in such a way to give the audience something unexpected and unpredictable, not always the same thing. It's about how to make a story interesting and fun to watch." Detective Dee's action sequences are choreographed by master Sammo Hung.
There are times when VFX are not the way to go; they must be relevant to the story. "Sometimes the audience wants to be entertained with a more realistic treatment of a story," says Tsui. "The effects sometimes get too far-fetched and the audience gets distracted and not involved in what's going on. I like to create the kind of effects shot that's relevant to the story and style of the movie."
The giant statue of the empress, for example, "is an iconic image that defines the movie on-screen," he says. He and his VFX team were constantly improving each VFX shot through post-production until the last moment when they had to give up the movie. He shot for the first time with the digital Red One Camera. He liked looking at footage right away during shooting, and seeing sequences on a screen.
He admits that you lose something when you leave film. With digital, you have to prepare a shot, you can't do the timing and color contrast later in post-production. With film there's more room for shadow and light, and you can fix in the printing.
Next up at year's end is $35-million 3-D Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, starring Jet Li, which is a Chapter Two continuation of Dragon Inn from 20 years ago. Tsui shot the film in 3-D --and would have loved to do the same with Detective Dee, but didn't have access to the technology at the time. It took Tsui six months to acquire the knowledge and information that he needed. China has many 3-D screens, he says, thanks to Avatar.
Still in the cards is a reunion with John Woo, who started his career with Tsui, who presented him with a life achievement award at the Venice Film Festival last year. "We talk so much about it," Tsui says. "We say, 'let's work together.'" We can only hope.