Theatrical release: 09/29/2010 (China); 09/02/2011 (US) DVD Date: 12/13/2011
Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 119 minutes
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Review: The opening scenes to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame provide a brief introduction to the story about to be told …
In 689 A.D. upon Emperor Tang Gaozhong's death Empress Wu, a regent for 7 years, would soon be crowned as history's first female Emperor. Royal clansmen and founding officials resented a woman usurping the throne and conspired to overthrow her reign. Beyond its peaceful façade, danger was lurking within the capital.
The Empress has ordered that a Towering Buddha bearing her likeness be completed prior to her assumption of the throne. An engineering masterpiece, the supporting core is protected by a series of amulets. When Jia, Vice Minister of Public Works, removes one of the amulets the workers fear the worst. Shatuo, a senior engineer, pleads with Jia to restore it but he waves him off. Minutes later, as Jia proudly shows off the Buddha to a visiting dignitary under a bright sky, he spontaneously combusts into flames. To prove that the amulet had nothing to do with Jia's mysterious death, another official, Xue, also removes one of the sacred scrolls. He too, quickly bursts into flames once he leaves the Towering Buddha. The Empress believes these deaths are part of a plan to overthrow her, and calls in Detective Dee (Dí Rénjié) from the prison to which he was condemned for, ironically, opposing the Empress following Emperor Tang's death, to investigate these deaths and determine who is behind them.
No doubt many will see this film for its martial arts and action sequences. I, however, have seen far too few of these types of films to rate Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame on its merits in this regard. So I'm viewing (reviewing) it as a murder mystery, and from this perspective it's pretty good. Detective Dee approaches the case like any seasoned private investigator would: assume that everyone — including your client — is lying to you but that clues to the truth are buried somewhere within the lies being told. There are suspects aplenty, red herrings to divert, evidence to be explored, conclusions to be deduced. There are also some gaping plot holes, but the story moves along so quickly that they are hardly noticed.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a visually striking film, the center of which is the Towering Buddha, which rises some 300 feet above the Emperor's palace courtyard. A lot of thought went into filming the construction of the monument, with massive gears and levers and pulleys making for a most credible pre-Industrial age construction project. But even the quiet scenes, especially the nighttime images with cherry blossoms blowing gently across the ground, are beautiful to look at.
The backstory to the film is fascinating. Dí Rénjié was a real person and powerful influence within the Tang Dynasty and later that of the reign of Empress Wu Zetian and is considered a "modern" folk hero. In the 18th century, an anonymous author penned a detective story featuring him titled Di Gong An. In 1949, Robert van Gulik translated the novel as Dee Ghong An: An Ancient Chinese Detective Story (later published as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) and went on to write many novels and short stories featuring the character.
I was entertained by this film … probably more than I expected. I appreciate the fact that the story was equally important to the filmmakers as the martial arts sequences and how really stunning the film looked.