Fantasia 2011: Tsui Hark’s ‘Detective Dee’ is enjoyably eccentric

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Written by Chen Kuo-fu and Zhang Jialu

Directed by Tsui Hark

Hong Kong/China, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has an infectious, bombastic energy that hides some of its more obvious flaws. Set in ancient China just as the first Empress is about to be coronated, a high-ranking official working on the construction of a giant Buddha figure spontaneously bursts into flames. Upon the advice of her Chaplain, a talking deer, the Empress releases Detective Dee, who had been previously arrested for treason. The film is indebted to the charismatic performance of its lead, Andy Lau, as well as Sammo Hung’s action choreography, which makes the occasionally bloated film breeze right along.

Dwelling on the film’s flaws seems unfair, as it is supremely entertaining. It’s packed with lovingly odd moments, be it strange talking animals, crazy almost-sex scenes, mind-blowing stunts or hilarious human torches. The film reaches a perfect ebb and flow that as soon as things start to become stale, something shocking pulls the viewer right back in. Detective Dee does disappoint, however, in that the action sequences are not particularly well-shot, and though Hung’s choreography is spectacular enough to shine through, one wonders how good this film could have been if the montage was less frantic and more long shots had been used.

As someone with little interest in traditional mysteries, the Scooby-doo-esque central story served as little more than a spring-board for the film’s set pieces and humour. As the film makes a tonal shift halfway through, the silliness of the plot becomes unfortunately apparent. Eccentricity is often so much less interesting when it begins to take itself seriously. Same with the combative sexual chemistry that exists between Andy Lau and Li Bingbing. When they are no longer petty rivals, much of their energy goes out of the window, the spark is completely lost. Whenever the film hits a stride, all these problems fade away. The whole sequence of Andy Lau deciding to shave as it drifts into a hilarious would-be sex scene into a near-death experience finally settling into a beautifully choreographed fight sequence is nothing short of spectacular.

Detective Dee is far more good than bad and works particularly well with a crowd. Its humour is good-natured and absurd, and it feels considerably more genuine than most summer blockbusters released by Hollywood this year. The film’s failings are only a reminder of how great the film could have been if it had hit all the right marks.

– Justine Smith

Visit the official Fantasia Film Fest website

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