In 7th century China an enormous Buddha statue is being erected in honour of the first female ruler, Empress Wu (Carina Lau). Whilst showing foreign dignitaries around the site, the project supervisor suddenly bursts into flame, burning to death before their astonished eyes. Timid construction worker Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) believes the killing is divine retribution for the removal of two sacred amulets from the statue. His theory is seemingly borne out when an investigating official becomes the next fiery casualty. On the advice of the mystical Chaplain Lo Li, who manifests in the form of a talking deer, Empress Wu summons China's greatest sleuth: Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who was imprisoned after opposing her succession to the throne. Feisty, whip-wielding handmaiden Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bing-Bing) springs Dee from jail, but alongside hot-tempered albino officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chiao) continues to spy on the detective as he pits his wits against the mystery of the phantom flame.
Written in the 18th century by an unknown Chinese author, "The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee" was a fictional work inspired by the exploits of Di Renjie, a real-life magistrate during the Tang Dynasty. It was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch writer, diplomat and orientalist who translated the text for a European audience. He went on to pen seventeen other Detective Dee mysteries from 1946 to 1967 and today the series continues under French author Frederic Lenormand. Now Detective Dee has made it to the big screen. After dabbling in low-key ghost stories (Missing (2008)) and zany romantic comedy (All About Women (2008)), Tsui Hark returns to the kind of eye-popping spectacle that made his name, only with a faintly revisionist edge akin to Guy Ritchie’s recent re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes.
Instead of the portly, elderly Di Renjie familiar from the novels, Hark casts the virile and charismatic Andy Lau whose exuberant detective shares a flair for deductive reasoning and a strong moral code in common with Holmes. His occasionally antagonistic relationships with Jing'er, Donglai and the morally ambiguous Empress are nicely drawn while Hark retains his capacity for surprises. We expect the ruthless Donglai to be a villain, but he proves instead a most stalwart ally while Jing'er harbours a startling secret reminiscent of an earlier Hark classic: Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992). It is among several self-referential aspects about the film, another example being a villain who appears as a crimson phantom made of fabric able to split into many parts, which recalls the animated red blanket from Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983).
Being a Mainland co-production, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame endows Hark with vast resources he never had before, including lavish and fascinating reconstructions of life at the imperial court interwoven midst the labyrinthine plot. Hark does not sugarcoat the darker aspects of Empress Wu (subject of a lavish biopic by Shaw Brothers' auteur Li Han-hsiang in 1963) and draws attention to her paranoia and manipulative nature. Indeed he smuggles a surprising amount of subversive statements about oppressive regimes, the need for political reform and the citizens duty to question corrupt authority, that somehow snuck past the Mainland censor. Now that mainstream cinema so blatantly apes his frenetic style, Hark has slowed down, allowing the intricacies of the mystery to seep through but still laces the film with surreal imagery and offbeat ideas. Notably the casting of comedian Richard Ng and Cantopop star-turned-actor and director Teddy Robin Kwan as the same character: hunchbacked physician Donkey Wang, able to alter his appearance by means of acupuncture. The action, choreographed by the great Sammo Hung is hyperkinetic and visual without the overly stylised CGI of recent years, leaving the award-winning special effects to serve as the icing on an already sumptuous cake. Andy Lau is his usually engaging self while Li Bing-Bing and the award-winning Carina Lau uphold Hark's tradition of strong, complex female characters.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.