Thursday 5 July 2012

From the archive: "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame"

Detective Dee... would appear to be Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung comprehensively handing Guy Ritchie what the latter would doubtless refer to as his "arris". Andy Lau brings his usual precise and methodical bearing to the role of the master detective sprung from prison in imperial China by the very Empress he's been accused of plotting against. She needs him to investigate the spontaneous combustion of several of her flunkies in the run-up to her big coronation day; his sidekicks in this matter will be an albino who's miffed at missing out on a promotion suggested when his immediate superior went up in smoke, and an insouciant female officer initially dispatched to keep an eye on our hero - though there's also a talking elk in here somewhere that will prove crucial to the plot.

And plot (in all its meanings) does prove crucial to Detective Dee. For all the film's lavish spectacle, its ability to generate out of nothing cavernous period settings (the inside of a Buddha statue, a subterranean city), it's the pleasure the film takes in unfolding its narrative that distinguishes Hark's film from its Western blockbuster contemporaries. The CSI-style procedural storyline comes to serve not merely as a launchpad to get us from set-piece A to set-piece B, but as a blueprint for an entire universe: the behind-the-throne power struggle (echoes of Hamlet, possibly) sets Dee to zigzagging back-and-forth, often physically, between the two factions, but also permits some wry, sly editorialising on the nature of change and reform.

While it's true Hark has jumped enthusiastically into the new wave of CGI-enhanced filmmaking - the man-vs.-moose fight couldn't happen any other way - the action he and Hung have choreographed here retains that clarity of purpose specific to the martial arts: even when the characters are leaping fifty feet in the air and being yanked around on wires, you can see the punches being thrown, why they've been thrown, and the exact moment they hit. Given the half-assed, seemingly random manner in which Asian films are distributed in the UK, it's hardly a surprise Dee should have had to take its bow on DVD; nonetheless, this is one of those movies made for a Saturday night on the big screen.

(April 2012)

Friday night on television will have to do: Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame premieres on Film4 at 11.10pm tomorrow.

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