Saturday, October 8, 2011

Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame (orig. Di Renjie)

MPAA (PG-13) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1123373/
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110921/REVIEWS/110929994

Detective Dee and the Phanton Flame, orig. Di Renjie (directed by Hark Tsui, written by Kuo-fu Chen and Jialu Zhang based on the original story Lin Qianyu) is an expertly filmed, Mandarin language, English subtitled film about a popular/larger than life Chinese official named Di Renjie who lived at the time of the Tang Dynasty during the reign/regency of Wu Zetien (690-705 AD).  Wu Zetien was arguably the only female Emperor in the history of China.

My only substantive complaint about the movie would be that I do believe that this movie should have been dubbed into English.  Visually the film was so good, that it was a shame that one had to be distracted from the film by having to look down to read the subtitled.  However, if one likes history, sword and sorcery fantasy (though this movie was based at least in part on history) or martial arts (ie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)) then one would probably like this film.

Indeed, the film's a reminder that Chinese young people are among the most avid players of internet based fantasy role playing games in the world today, testified to by Chinese World of Warcraft fans having created a full-length animated film (using the game itself as its set) called War Against Internet Addiction to protest Chinese internet censorship ;-).  All this is to say that Detective Dee was almost certainly not intended to be "an art film," but rather a Chinese "Indiana Jones meets King Arthur" film intended for popular, indeed world-wide appeal.  And with the exception of the lack of dubbing, I do believe it largely even spectacularly succeeds.

So what is the movie about?  Set just before the coronation of Wu Zetien (played by Carina Lau) the builders of gigantic female statue of the Buddha just outside the Imperial palace are horrified when a number of those in charge of the statue's construction die of apparent spontaneous human combustion.  Were they struck down by supernatural forces for disturbing (attempting to steal) a number of the mysterious amulets that had been placed in a repository at the base of the statue to protect the workers building the statue during its construction as assistant to the (deceased) lead foreman Shatuo Zhong (played by Tony Leung Ka Fai) believes?  Or was there a more mundane reason for their deaths (assassination by opponents of Wu, about to become the first woman emperor of China)?   In any case, after a mysterious appearance of Wu Zetien's Buddhist spiritual advisor (appearing to her in the form of a talking deer) she is told that the best person to put on the case would be Di Renjie (judge or detective Dee, played by Andy Lau).

There is a small problem, however, Di Renjie was jailed by Wu Zetien after the death of the previous emperor as a possible opponent to her.  For his part in treason, he had been blinded and was working now as one responsible for the burning of old official government correspondence after it was deemed no longer important to keep.  What good would a blind "detective" be?  To find out, Wu sends her trusted female assistant Shangguan Jing'er (played by Bingbing Li) to find Di Renjie and see if he could really be of assistance.  Jing'er finds that Di Renjie was much smarter than even his opponents had taken him to be, that he had managed to dodge his blinding sentence and that had actually taken the opportunity to read all those documents that he was responsible for burning.  So he was more than ready (and informed) to take-up the case.

Many adventures ensue.  The culprits for the spontaneous human combustion assissinations turn out to be phosphorus eating fire beetles.  By the end of the film, the conspirators are uncovered by the good judge/detective Di (and Di and Wu also find a way to make peace with each other, even if Wu had sent Di to prison to be blinded so many years ago).

Why would Di do that, accept a peace with someone who had sought to hurt him, indeed blind him before?  It would seem because he never took his sentence personally.  Indeed, one could say that there's a lot of recent Chinese history embedded in this story as well -- Di, a court official and intellectual, having been sentenced to be blinded and forced to burn books, only to be asked to come back and help the Empress (and the nation) in time of need.  

Aall this is done in good humor and with a lot martial arts tumbling and Chinese style magic -- those fire beetles, acupuncture, amulets and so forth.

I found the movie very entertaining and visually stunning.  I just wish that I didn't have to keep dropping down to read those subtitles. 


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