Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame Review
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The title character of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has taken a long and circuitous route to the big screen, but he finally arrives in a big, flashy, martial arts drama thatís a lot of fun to watch.

Based on a historical figure in the Tang Dynasty named Di Renjie, Judge Dee first appeared in an 18th century Chinese detective novel and later became the hero of 17 books from Dutch author Robert van Gulik in the mid-20th century before arriving in the 21st, courtesy of this new film from director Tsui Hark and star Andy Lau.

The film is set in 690 A.D., as the Empress Regent Wu Zeitan (Carina Lau) prepares to ascend the throne and become the first female Empress of China. When several officials in charge of building a towering stone Buddha statue to commemorate the event begin dying in spectacular instances of spontaneous combustion, sheís forced to recall Detective Dee (Andy Lau) to serviceóa man she had imprisoned years earlier for opposing her. Facing off against potentially supernatural forces as well as the political intrigues of the royal court, Dee must use both his deductive and martial prowess to discover the truth.

Thereís an interesting mishmash of genres at work here, built on the framework of a detective story and incorporating elements of lavish costume drama, historical fantasy, and martial arts action. Itís not always an easy marriage of ideas, as the demands of detective fiction tend to clash with the more fantastic elements. While Dee employs analytical skills familiar to most mystery fans, the fact the he lives in a world of arcane potions, shape-shifting assassins, and talking oracular reindeer leaves the viewer slightly out of the loop. We donít know the rules governing whatís possible in this world, so we donít know when to accept magic as-is or look for the trickery behind it, as is more common in Western detective fiction.

Thatís all pretty forgivable, as the film succeeds much better with the action and fantasy elements. Iíve always loved the way Chinese cinema embraces every possible film technique to create grandiose action epics, and thatís certainly the case here. From atop the towering Buddha to an underground city, the settings are vivid and filled with detail and provide some interesting stages for the action, featuring fight choreography by veteran Sammo Hung.

In terms of the cast, Lau plays Dee with the right amount of mischief and wit, and heís ably backed up by Chao Deng as a local investigator and Li Bing Bing as an agent of the royal court. Carina Lau gets an unfortunately minimal amount of time as the soon-to-be Empress, but she manages to provide some depth and insight to an important historical figure. Her brief verbal sparring with Dee highlights the lack of a strongly defined villain for the storied detective to oppose.

With plenty of historical and fictional background for the character, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame could easily give rise to a sequel or series. Itís an enjoyable action-mystery with an intriguing lead, and Iíd certainly enjoy seeing the clever Detective Dee take on a few more cases.

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