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Movies You Missed 18: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 

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This week in movies you missed: an ass-kicking, anachronistic genius detective from Hong Kong. Top that, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes!

What You Missed

A 2010 mystery/action epic from prominent Hong Kong New Wave director Tsui Hark, based on the real Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie and latter-day fictions about his exploits.

The year is 689 A.D., and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to crown herself China's first empress, over the objections of clan leaders who do not want a woman on the throne. After officials inspect the 200-foot Buddha statue just constructed in the empress' honor, one of them bursts into flames, a victim of apparent spontaneous combustion.

The mysterious immolations continue. The empress' chaplain is on "spiritual sabbatical," but he comes to her in the form of a talking deer and advises her to seek the help of Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a judicial official who was imprisoned eight years ago for treason.

The empress sends her martial-arts-trained maid, Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing), to retrieve Dee, who turns out to be a formidable fighter even when chained to another prisoner. (He also has a caged bird with deductive abilities.) With the help of judge Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), Dee and Jing'er set out to solve the mystery. Assassins pop up whenever they get close, making for plenty of action setpieces.

Why You Missed It

Detective Dee received a Golden Lion nomination at last year's Venice Film Festival. Released in the U.S. in September, it occupied 48 theaters in its widest release, none here.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Last summer, when the theaters were full of comic-book properties and sequels to remakes, I would have loved the chance to see Detective Dee on the big screen instead. It's a gorgeous spectacle (for just $20 million, claims Wikipedia) with a plot complex enough for grownups to enjoy.

That said, I haven't seen enough Hong Kong action epics to judge Detective Dee within its genre. My points of reference are American sort-of-period extravaganzas like the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

The Hong Kong style has, of course, influenced Hollywood and vice versa, so there are plenty of similarities between their big-budget films and ours — hand-to-hand combat, wire work, swelling music, digital effects, etc. But there are also things you would not find in a Hollywood summer flick, and those are what interested me most about Detective Dee.

For instance:

  • Court politics play a major role in the plot, and they are not simple. Get ready to read some subtitles.
  • There's no hard and fast line between the good guys and bad guys.
  • The solution of the mystery involves science, but magic is also an unquestioned part of the movie's world. You will learn about the link between acupressure points and shape shifting.
  • The movie's heroine almost engages in sex with the movie's hero for wholly mercenary reasons. You won't see that in our PG-13 films.
  • Spiritual sabbatical. Talking deer. 'Nough said.

The acting is strong across the board, the production design kept me staring, and the effects look pretty good for the budget, at least on a small screen. The action style is different from ours: There's less frenetic cutting and more slo-mo balletic wire work, which makes the fights seem even less "realistic" than in American movies. But more fun to watch.

Verdict: The bigger your screen, the better, because this is a cinematic experience. I'm seeing Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows this weekend, so I can't compare them yet, but I have to say, Detective Dee is a pretty awesome no-nonsense detective, and his superhero qualities do not become annoying.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (rediscovered documentary footage of the movement from Swedish journalists)
  • Circumstance (two girls in love — in Iran)
  • Daddy Long-Legs (indie drama about a divorced dad trying to protect his kids)
  • The Smell of Success (Billy Bob Thornton and a bunch of other familiar names in a comedy about a manure dynasty)
  • Tanner Hall (boarding school drama starring Rooney Mara, the new Girl With a Dragon Tattoo)
  • Also, the Fright Night remake, which is better than you probably think. David Tennant wears a lot of leather, and Colin Farrell has his own take on the sexy vampire.

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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More by Margot Harrison

About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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