Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (HK 2010)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 9/3/11
Produced And Directed By: Tsui Hark
Action Director: Samo Hung
Cast: Andy Lau, Li Bing Bing, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, cameos by Richard Ng, Teddy Robin

Heralded by many as Tsui Hark's comeback film, but I was left unfulfilled. I fear that like many of my other favorite directors of the 80's and 90's, he has completely fallen out of touch with his audience, and now seeks self indulgence over being an entertainer. Is this the fate of all artists as they mature? Do they get so wrapped up in the skills of the trade that they lose sight of everything else? It certainly seems that way.

Anyway, the story concerns the empress Wu (Carina Lau), China's first and only female emperor. As her coronation approaches, a number of incidents occur involving people spontaneously combusting. She turns to Detective Dee (Andy Lau), whom she had imprisoned eight years ago for treason, to investigate the case, accompanied by her loyal servant Jing'er (smoking hot Li Bing Bing). What follows is a tedious adventure of strange characters and mystical places, which becomes increasingly bizarre as the film progresses. By far the strangest part of the film is when Dee fights off a half dozen computer generated deer.

The film is certainly a first rate production and quite pretty to look at, although most of the computer generated sets and backgrounds are distracting and gratuitous. Tsui Hark's love affair with technology proves to be the film's undoing, and the overly self important visual effects bring too much attention to themselves. Just because you can do something, that doesn't mean that you should. The pacing is also incredibly slow and ponderous, and lacks the hyper-kinetic frenzy of Hark's earlier, and more enjoyable works. Samo Hung's action choreography is pretty good for the most part, but the wirework is surprisingly sloppy and unconvincing. Sadly, that seems to be the state of the art these days, even in China. The acting is quite good, but it's not a stretch for any of the actors. Andy Lau continues to be charming, if not a little stiff, and he handles his action scenes well. But it's Li Bing Bing who steals the show with her radiant beauty and fierce intensity. She is simply intoxicating to watch, and her scenes are the best scenes in the film. The plot is plodding and convoluted, but the characters are interesting and there's always something neat to look at. It definitely boasts Tsui Hark's visual flair, but it lacks passion and energy, which ultimately makes it a somewhat dull and empty experience.