Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mystery of the phantom flame


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame by Tsui Hark is a very interesting movie. It stars Andy Lau in an entertainly quirky performance as legendary Chinese figure Di Renjie, most famous in the west as the protaganist of the fictionalized Judge Dee mysteries written by Robert van Gulik.

This story, however, is apparently taken from a novel by Lin Qianyu. It takes place around the courtroom at the time of the coronation of Wu Zetian, China's first (and only) female emperor.

The trouble for me is that I can't help seeing a rather ambivalent statement being made about the People's Republic of China - or perhaps about British rule of Hong Kong - and I don't know enough about either the historical period being covered or the internal politics of modern China well enough to understand what that statement might be, outside expressing some ambivalence.

Too often I don't bother to write about movies such as this that I'm knowledgeable enough to know I'm not knowledgeable enough to give as complete a review as the movie deserves. I'm trying to make more exceptions to that, and this seems like as good a choice as any.

Viewed as just a movie, it's terrifically entertaining. Lacking the knowledge of any Chinese literary tradition for Di that Lin and Tsui may be drawing from, it plays much like my best imaginings of what Guy Ritchie take on Sherlock Holmes, which I've still not seen, would be like.

It's an action movie, with action choreography by the great Sammo Hung, as well an historical epic and a mystery. Lau's Di is wise and quirky. He's released from prison by still regent Wu to solve the deaths of two men who are burned alive from the inside, as her coronation approaches.

I'm sure some of my fellow movie geeks will think there's too much CGI in the realization of the world of the time, but for me it played fine, creating a fantastic colorful world in which all of this takes place.

Apparently Tsui is working on a prequel. It's hard to imagine it won't be something of an anti-climax after the scope of this one, but then I enjoyed Lau's characterization and Tsui's style with it enough that I'll definitely make th effort to find it.


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