Di Renjie was a real person. He was an official during the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Wu Zetian’s Zhou Dynasty. His life and work became the inspiration for the novel Di Gong An, which was written in the 18th century and translated in the 1940s as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The character has since been the focus of other stories, dramas, and has now become a supernatural historical fantasy and mystery film by director Tsui Hark.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is set in 687 A.D., just prior to the coronation of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first and only Empress of China. In honor of this event, she has had a colossal Buddha statue constructed outside the palace. During the construction however, certain mishaps occur (namely the spontaneous combustion of high ranking officials). In desperation, and under the advisement of the mystical Chaplain (who appears in the form of a talking deer), she puts Detective Dee (Andy Lau) on the case, a man who she had previously imprisoned for eight years for trying to lead a rebellion against her. The plot takes a lot of insane twists and turns. The case has an aura of the supernatural, leading Dee and his comrades, the albino Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) and Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li), who works directly for the Empress, to confront demonic beings and an army of assassins as they race against the clock to uncover the answers.
This, being a Tsui Hark film, is packed with all of his signature elements: a cast of thousands to fill every gigantic set (CG or practical), elaborate and over-the-top fight sequences, and a lot of special effects. The scale of this movie is enormous and its settings are larger than life. The Buddha statue towers high over the expansive city and its inner workings are no less impressive. The inside of the statue seems to stretch upwards for miles and makes for a memorable set. From the moment you first see it you just know Tsui Hark has an epic fight planned that will bring the whole place crashing down around the heroes. While there are some ludicrous and physics defying fights, they aren’t quite as impressive as if they were showcasing a martial artist as the star. Andy Lau, though energetic and charismatic, is not as physically captivating as Jet Lee or Donnie Yen, for instance. While some of the duels are interesting to watch, none rival any fight scene from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China.
Another problem with this movie is the computer animation. It’s always obvious in its usage, but it’s probably most convincing when animating impossible objects into the scenery. Many sets and locations, such as the Buddha statue and the establishing shots of the underground Phantom Bazaar, are aided with the use of CGI, but in other instances (and I’m referring specifically to the computer animated deer) it comes across as silly. I would argue that the silliness is also a part of the charm. Over-the-top is the theme here, though it’s most apparent when Dee uses martial arts to battle a group of angry deer in a magic temple. One of the more interesting details of the movie is how Dee feels about the case and his new employer. The Empress is the same woman he rebelled against, so you’d think her enemies would be his friends. It’s not that simple since Dee doesn’t think in terms of black and white. Even though she’s not exactly a saint – something that gets emphasized repeatedly – the kingdom and its people are united and thriving under her rule.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a loud, crazy, and overall intriguing mystery adventure. It’s pure visual spectacle and makes sure to flex its special effects budget at every turn. Tsui Hark once again created a fantastical and vibrant world to share.