Mystery of the Phantom Flame is set during the reign of Empress Wu (Carina Lau), the usurping regent preparing for her coronation as Emperor of China. Wu has surrounded herself with female retainers, and her "favorite" is Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), a formidable whip-wielding official loosely based on a real female official in Wu's court. Work is underway for a massive ceremony, to be presided over by a colossal statue of the Buddha -- but someone seems to be sabotaging the project. Bureaucrats overseeing the work are spontaneously bursting into flames. Only one mind in all China is thought capable of getting to the bottom of this mystery, but Di Renjie (Andy Lau) is stewing in prison for his role in a rebellion against Wu years ago. That soon changes, and with Jing'er and pale-faced bureaucrat Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) as minders, Dee is on the case. There are plenty of potential masterminds to probe, including Jing'er and Donglai themselves. There is the mystical influence of the Imperial Chaplain, who sends magical deer to speak for him, to consider. There are dead-ender dissidents whose reservations about Wu Dee himself still shares. To make matters more difficult, in this fantasy China people can "transfigure" themselves with acupuncture so that no one is necessarily who he or she seems. And there's a lot of leaping, ducking, punching and kicking to do before Dee tracks down the true culprit -- and then the question becomes whether a ruthless usurper and tyrant like Wu should rule China.
Detective Dee (Andy Lau, above) is freed from prison to serve the Empress (Carina Lau, below) he once opposed and may still oppose.
Ever since Hero, I've noticed an interesting commentary on tyranny in Chinese movies. Films produced under the rule of the Communist Party don't need to idealize emperors or empresses, but government people would be kidding themselves if they didn't see these imperial epics as allegories of present-day China. These movies, or at least the ones I've seen, make no bones about rulers being bloodstained tyrants. But while the American imagination always sees a good ruler waiting in the wings, if not an end to old-style rulership, Chinese heroes find themselves stuck with a stark choice between tyranny and chaos. In Hero the Jet Li character steps back from assassinating Qin Shihuang once he realizes the necessity of the unification of China that Qin alone can achieve, no matter what the human cost. In Detective Dee the title character sees no viable alternative to Empress Wu, even though she's guilty of just about every offense he ever accused her of. But in a manner reminiscent for me of Anthony Mann's El Cid Dee confronts the tyrant and browbeats her into ruling more justly and accepting a kind of term limit on her power. In history, at least according to Wikipedia, Wu was forced off the throne by a palace coup. But in the translated epilogue to Detective Dee we're told that Wu abdicated voluntarily in fulfillment of a promise made to Dee. That's an interesting change to history in light of the current policy of term limits for Communist Party leaders, -- as if that makes the party monopoly on power okay because it isn't a personal tyranny anymore -- but I'm not sure what Chinese audiences would read into the film's finish -- though I can't help wondering.
Two views of the Empress's colossus, from the outside and the inside.
Most people probably see Detective Dee as pure spectacle, and it's often quite pictorially dazzling. Oddly, I found myself reminded more sometimes of western artists like Maxfield Parrish than of anything distinctively Chinese in the production design; CGI may yet make all world cinema look more alike than it ever did before. Likewise, the climactic image of the colossal sabotaged Buddha collapsing is evocative of everything from September 11, 2001 to Samson and Delilah, but that only underscores a certain unoriginality to the idea. Sammo Hung did the fight choreography but there's really nothing new here. It's mostly the sort of stunts and gags that directors like Tsui Hark were filming 20 years ago, now augmented by CGI so that Dee can brawl in mid-air with angry leaping magical deer, among other antagonists. There is a fight scene arguably inspired by Ritchie's Holmes in which Dee instructs a blind man where exactly to strike to hit his antagonist, but all the fighting took second place, as far as I was concerned, to the eccentric mystery of the spontaneous combustions and the allegorical potential of all the political intrigues. It's in those areas that Detective Dee stands out as a distinctly Chinese epic, regardless of all efforts to sell the film as an action movie with global appeal. Those parts really make the film worth seeing.