Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame aka Live at Buddha Con.
Tsui Hark is one of world cinema’s exemplars of action. One can learn more about editing from five minutes of Hark than all the Bourne duds combined. Once in my care, it was just a matter of hours before the three-movie Detective Dee collection made its way from the Hillcrest Pawnbrokers to my DVD tray.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Poised to be crowned China’s first female Emperor, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) commissions her own Statue of Liberty of sorts, a soaring Buddha overlooking the palace that, upon completion, will stretch 66 yards into the sky. But construction workers who fear that Master Jia’s removal of amulets will bring bad luck are proven right; while leading a tour of the top, the foreman catches fire inside the Buddha’s temple. After the next day brings another seeming act of self-immolation, fire becomes the new enemy. Night pearls replace flames as indoor lighting — and that’s not snow falling buoyantly from the sky, it’s the ashes of burning obituaries. Is it divine intervention or superstition? Spontaneous combustion or the phosphorus poison of “fire beetles”? Sprung from prison after serving eight years for treason against Wu, it’s up to Di Renjie (Andy Lau) to crack the case before her coronation. A confrontation with a herd of magic deer, led by the Imperial Chaplain, that plays out over the palace sky makes Santa’s flying armada look like a pack of vagrant pudu. Fans of police procedurals, supernatural Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Hong Kong “flying people” pictures will all find something to cheer in this thrilling action-adventure whodunit.
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013)
The first installment was such a hit that a Detective Dee origin story followed quickly in its wake. If Phantom Flame was a vivid example of how to construct and sustain a fantasy universe for mature minds, Rise of the Sea Dragon was strictly kid stuff. Mark Chao, a step down from Andy Lau, plays Young Dee as one of those talkative-type sleuths, the sort who love to blather on in detail over their powers of deduction. The opening attack on the Chinese fleet by what appears to be a black roiling fist of water is tough to top, which is precisely why it’s going to be a long wait — as in never — before we get a good look at the titular serpent. A sequel of this kind generally calls for a bigger effects budget, much of which is expended in the name of video game coverage and boundless depth. Everything takes a backseat to relentless, and at times incoherent, effects-driven action. And when the action finally takes a back seat to the drama, as in a Beauty and the Beast subplot between Lady Rujii (Angelababy) and her charred lover Mr. Yuan (Bum Kim), you’re likely to find yourself wishing for more mayhem. Easily the weakest link in the trilogy, but it’s a must-see if for no other reason than to add to your understanding of what’s to follow.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (2018)
Most threequels are made for one simple reason: to cash in. Though it’s certain that Hark stood to profit from this enterprise, a bridging chapter that acts as both sequel and prequel, he told the South China Morning Post, “This third film required almost the same amount of time it took us to come up with the first... The reason [for the delay] is that I want to finally pull off what we didn’t manage to do in the first two films.” Though the result is not as heavenly as Phantom Flame, if Hark’s aim was to cap the series on a note of epic spectacle, he pulled off a commendable feat of sleight of hand. Emperor Gaozong (Chien Sheng) appoints Dee (Mark Chao) as head of the Department of Justice, placing in his care the mystical and all-powerful Dragon-Taming Mace. It’s created from stardust, forged in iron, and a bane to paranoid Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), who fears that Dee will use the celebrated cudgel to destroy her. In no time, she dispatches her royal guardsman Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to reclaim the divining baton. Joining Yuchi on his journey to reclaim the mace are a foursome of mercenary illusionists — Magicians of Fortune, if you will. (But don’t look to this group to personify the eponymous royalty. That honor goes to a quartet of statues, seen under the opening credits and later on in one brief sequence.) As dazzling as the action scenes are — this is by far the most colorful of the trilogy — I liked it more when people flew under the power of strings and wire, not computer generated pixel dust. To the filmmaker’s credit, the melding of the two has seldom jibed as smoothly as it does here. Though far from perfect, it helps to pave over the pothole left by Young Detective Dee.