Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

- Character / Acting commentary
- Minimal Plot / Story Reveals
- Minimal Character Arcs / Developments
- Viewed in Cinema in 2010


With the title "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" this movie had a heck of a long title to remember, but I ended up remembering the film and characters instead, even after viewing it in 2010. A few obligatory news-info and tidbits to get everyone up to speed: This film is adapted from a mystery novel by Lin Qianyu, and is the result of a co-production between China and Hong Kong, from a screenplay written by Chen Kuofu. Celebrated HK-director Tsui Hark returns to helm the movie (after his urban outing "All Aobut Women"). Interestingly, Sammo Hung was credited for both Fight Choreography and Art Direction for the film.


Watching Detective Dee, I had this weird sense of both wonder and pride, at how far Chinese filmmaking has gone, and at the same time, why it never left the stratosphere. Make no mistake, Director Tsui Hark did an excellent job on this kungfu-slash-CSI-epic (cliched indistinguishable fighting closeups notwithstanding) with Andy Lau decently (finally) casted in this outing, as well the gorgeous Li Bing Bing as Jing'er - exuding the chambers and allure of Ling Qing Xia at many an occasions (i swore I could see cleft-chins). Even the guest casting of Teddy Robin was a treat (go wiki him)! Let's not forget the emotive performance of Tony Leung Ka-fai as "Shatuo" - the only thespian walking amongst these entertainers. Everyone else was rudimentary, as they were going to die eventually from the get go.


Speaking of walking dead, Deng Cao's role as the albino-sque "Longhai" had me puzzled for quite a duration of the show. Neither memorable in looks or character design (besides the irritating thick makeup), nor distinguishable from the commoners (gotta dig his platinum's, yeh? Heh), I had expected him to die a wretched death much, much earlier in the show. Irritating twerp he had tried to be in his role, I could not figure him out to a person with an albino-syndrome, or a pasty-white eunuch-come-minor official, in this film. It was only until his death-by-suntan near the end of the flick, that got me missing him a tad (and what a hero's death too!). And if you forget or know not the actor, do not blame yourselves here. But he sure had the rad-est of weapons though!


One other character of contention, was Carina Lau's stint as "Wu Zher Tian" The Empress of China. I had watched Detective Dee with the Heng Family (ie with Dad, Mum, Bro and Sis) and everyone felt Carina's turn was insipid and decidedly "non-regal" (although the "chubby" part fit the mold of the Tang Dynasty period quite decently). Everyone, including me, felt that actress Gong Li would have done that role justly.

But I too realized that role would have outshined Andy's role in the film, drastically so. And in a film such as this, a decent balance need to be had, for the resultant product be "balanced" and watchable. Certain roles and happenstance were meant to be fillers - good fillers, no less - but never need to outshine the main cast, or even main character, IMHO.


I've always admired Andy Lau for his handwork and positive attitude in this cut-throat industry, but the man is the same throughout whatever roles he take on. Be it the deadpan stoic stare, or the charming-chottle grimace, dude is the same, from urban streets to kungfu back alleys. Be that as it may, he plays the character here quite straight forward, and without a hint of discomfort or anger - which bugs me so, as he had been illegally detained for such a long period of time for his hair to grow into a mess (not longer than 5 years is needed to grow hair that long, I know for a fact as I had grown my hair that long) within the scripted 8 years.

What would be interesting to see, is that he was such a smart character - detective, if you will - that he thinks everyone else are idiots, and that disdain he might have, might have given him the edge in being a memorable character. As such, Andy's "Di Ren Jie" is 3 steps below Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes, and a step and a half above James Bond in this outing (Roger Moore Bond, mind).


The ending part when his hair was fully let down whilst silently grimacing in the effects of the flame/fire-beetles, was pretty much an interesting surprise, and no doubt points the film to it's sequel. Nice one, this. But the goatee, oh man the goatee - and seems only Andy could carry it off without it looking wholly like a caricature … sort of …


I Love Li Bing Bing. 'Nuff Said.

Forgivable was her white-hair witchy role in Forgotten Kingdom (that wretched cliche starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan mentoring a white boy with rod skills), but as "Shangguan Jing'er", her cheekbones smiled and looked exceptionally handsome, and nigh desirable - no doubt heating up the loins of may a male viewer, even with her androgynous turn. Exceptional casting this, too bad she bit the dust and may never come back in the sequel. How a skilled martial artist such as her died in the forest tho, is as mindboogling as it happened. That particularly felt convoluted and was a hastened scripted death than anything else … oh my poor Jing'er …

[Obligatory skin-snap…]

And then there was Tony Leung Ka-fai, the acting thespian. He who, with a slight change in grimace, gave gravitas to the film, in that single moment when Dee confronted Shatuo with the film's "truth". Shoulda known he had a bigger role when we first saw him in the beginning, innit? And that is as much as we need to say about him - awkward martial arts fighting with Dee notwithstanding.

Characters are what make movies interesting. Designs and sets are what makes them look epic. And this was an epic film, in more instances than one, but unfortunately, not all.

And what this film had in spades, was a decent design sense, and a decently high sense of art direction, from the detailed backgrounds to the hand-props, and of course the computer-generated elements. But to be sure, there were plenty more hits as there were misses, but overall a huge leap from the days of Hark's "Magic Mountain" escapades.


The controlled CG-element in the giant sculpture could be much better, as did the overall landscape shots of the film. The one distinguishable difference between Chinese style of CG versus say, American, is that the Chinese tend to go "bright", and cast lesser shadows. So much so, the blacks are very seldom "crushed", and often err on the side of "grey" - which to me, discounts depth. Having said that, the standard was pretty amazingly well done this time, but yes, it could be better.

Another thing oft noticed, is the need for the widest of the CG-element, which most times remind me of stop-motion effects - "don't wanna waste the time and energy, so see them all!" - maybe? Regardless, more control would be welcomed, methinks.

A single bone to pick, for me, was the fight sequence in the faux temple (whose name escapes me, but look out for the maniac flying stags, where obvious film-effects were used to replicate "liquid floor" (or some such ludicrous effect). Looked like something I do in photoshop. Please do not do it anymore Mr Hark. It looks like the budget ran dry at that point and you had to make do with whatever the editing suite could give you.

Moving on.


Costumes were yummy to say the least. The actors look a tad uneasy in them (which to me makes a slight edginess to the result, as I feel they shouldn't be so comfortable in period clothing, innit?) while looking splendid in them. Awesome fittings no doubt go to Li Bing Bing (yes, I am biased) with the rest merely meaty clothes-racks to fabric. And why is Andy Lau so unnaturally slim? Give him an unearthly aura both supernatural and dreaded-ly healthy-modern, IMHO. And perhaps that's what makes Detective Dee tick, and tick well - the fine balance of a traditional period kungfu-fighting spectacle, along with characters infused with a sense of modernity, folks can relate to them, without the trappings of tradition holding them down.


Credit must be given hugely for Director Tsui Hark, for his deft control and command of this massive ship, navigating thru controlled emotions from actors, as well a not-too convoluted effects of an epic this requires. I have had the opportunity to work with Hark in a national music video, in my early misbegotten years, and my experience then was that of a director fluid with his surroundings, and both mindful of what he had wanted to portray, and how to accurately get that shot, without sacrificing his initial ideas.


Which does not say it was a great experience, but no doubt a humbling one. Spending a few moments with him in a conference room, both of us frantically sketching out storyboards while he was late for a local press conference, was invigorating. As well as the person who delves deep into doing whatever work was needed for the project. Well, that was decades then, and I am coming off as name-dropping from-the-past (and that, always, is ultimately "sad").

One thing that stuck with me, from viewing the film in a darkened cinema, to the now, as I type this, months on, was that the element of classic "period" martial art setting sometimes was not as obvious as I had expected it to be, with loads of visual cues and dialogue elements that unconsciously coerces me to think that the film was somehow set on present day. Or maybe I am too earnest for this film to "work", for it to be an improvement from the past, to be one of the "lights" that help Chinese cinema transcend to the next level, to be again on par with what they are, and not "can/could be". Or perhaps I am simply naive in my celluloid-quest.

Regardless, Detective Dee was a well-intentioned and executed film outing, with it's fair share of glaring faults and even convoluted script. But it was a nigh enjoyable viewing, and I would perhaps consider grabbing the DVD, if it were to appear in the discount bin. 3 x Popcorn Boxes out of 5!

I remember right when the roller credits appeared, I had wished to sequel immediately afters, right there and then. And to me personally, that is a mark of a good film. IMHO.