VENICE (Hollywood Reporter) - Tsui Hark’s spectacular, much-awaited kung fu film “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” shot in China for a reported $13 million, is an appealing combo of classic Chinese martial arts and mystery unraveling wedded to modern production design and CGI work. It will have special appeal for young video gamers and wuxia fans when it is released in China this month.
But despite the director’s credentials and its important cast, it looked like a fish out of water in competition at the recently completed Venice Film Festival, though a genre film raised to this high level of fantasy arguably can put up an artistic fight. Still, a little character development and an adult emotion or two crammed between jaw-dropping set pieces would have been appreciated. Tsui’s last film, “Seven Swords,” screened at Venice in 2005.
The character of Detective Dee is based on a real imperial court judge, Di Renjie, who lived during the Tang dynasty circa 690 A.D. Flash forward to the 1950s, when Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik wrote a series of detective novels that popularized Dee in the West as an Asian version of Sherlock Holmes. The film’s teenage title could have been (though it isn‘t) the title of one of Van Gulik’s 24 books.
As the story begins, Judge Dee (played by the youthful Andy Lau) has been thrown into prison by the emperor’s widow, Wu Zetian (a Machiavellian Carina Lau), who is about to be crowned China’s first empress. The historic ceremony is to take place in the shadow of a giant Buddha statue, a marvel of architecture that is 200 feet high and still under construction.
A visiting dignitary from abroad is given a guided tour inside the immense statue by one of the chief engineers. Its towering interior is dominated by a tall, treelike core, criss-crossed by bridges and movable mechanical parts. When the engineer and his visitor reach the Buddha’s enormous eyes, a horrifying event occurs: the engineer, struck by sunlight, bursts into flames and is burned alive from the inside out.
The terrified workforce blames an ancient curse, and word is sent to the Empress that divine wrath is upon her coronation. Then the messenger himself meets the same fiery end, as he is riding to the imperial court.
At this point, Wu makes the smart move of pardoning Dee, the only man who can unravel the mystery. She sends her favorite, the beautiful martial arts expert Jing‘er (Li Bingbing), to drag him out of an infernal prison where he has labored for eight long years, burning citizens’ petitions in a huge incinerator.
Reinstated as a judge, he immediately sets to work puzzling out the strange deaths. He concludes that they’re not supernatural at all, but part of an elaborate plot to overthrow the future Empress. With Jing‘er and cruel young judicial officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), who have become his uneasy allies, Dee goes below the earth to visit the Black City, another imaginative set designed as a dark, watery nightmare kingdom. Waylaying an eccentric old hermit named Wang the Donkey, they seek information on the fearful Fire Turtles, scarab beetles that inject poison into the body that causes it to burn up as soon as it comes into contact with sunlight.
With one part of the mystery solved, Dee now must discover whodunnit. Leaping over underground lakes, Dee, Jing‘er and Donglai have their first exciting fight with the Imperial Chaplain, a flying red figure with magical powers.
The atmosphere of mystery, magic and danger continues at a gallop in the final two action sequences, one set in the Monastery of the Infinite, where Dee defies the Empress’ orders and confronts the Imperial Chaplain; the other inside the Buddha statue in a breathtaking climax where fight choreographer Sammo Hung pulls out the stops on aerial wire work and special effects.
In star Lau’s youthful incarnation, Dee is noble, fearless and delightfully smart and observant, but nowhere does he become a human character with more than theoretical feelings and emotions. The lovely Jing‘er and cruel Donglai are so young and ferocious they seem like fighting machines out of a video game, with the result that their fate is not very compelling. Although it lacks the historical aura of classic Chinese wuxia backdrops, James Chiu’s post-“Avatar” production design is memorably imaginative.