Monday, 25 July 2011

Film Review! Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame (2010)

Back in the late nineties I was a fiend for Hong Kong films – from ‘heroic bloodshed’ films like Hardboiled to ‘category III’ gorefests (Bunman, Horrible High Heels), but I always had a soft spot for the epic ‘new wave’ kung fu efforts of directors such as Tsui Hark, who married old-school kung fu action to advancing special effects and opulent set design and cinematography – Films such as Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain, and The Storm Riders blew me away with their scope and operatic intensity. They felt like nothing Western cinema had ever produced, they were exotic, they were wild and untamed.

Of course, Hollywood has a tendency to cannibalise and appropriate the cinema of other countries – Witness the mass exodus of the German expressionists to the major studios back in the Golden Age, or the number of directors from the new-school of French horror who have already made the leap to mainstream pictures. Sure enough, within a few years, directors like John Woo and Ronnie Yu were making films in America, where of course their wilder excesses were curbed by studio pressure and the ‘film-making by committee’ culture. Before 1999 if you wanted a decent fight scene then Hong Kong was the place to look to, after The Matrix, and the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a lone example of a Hong Kong-turned-US director returning to his roots and getting major distribution), Yuen Woo Ping was the ‘action director’ on every single Hollywood blockbuster. Even master martial arts stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Sammo Hung made watered-down Western versions of their earlier work.

Of course, with this appropriation came familiarity, and, aside from a couple of last hurrahs in the work of Zhang Yimou (whose ‘Hero’ is the definitive high-art martial arts movie, and not likely to be bettered any time soon), and Stephen Chow’s OTT comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, the Hong Kong and kung fu film industries went sharply into decline, over taken in the Eastern pleasures stakes by Japanese horror and the fresher climes of the Korean and Thai film industries

And so it was for nearly ten years, until John Woo seemingly came back out of nowhere with his Red Cliff (2008), an opulent, big budget and expansive historical epic which garnered Western releases. Your reviewer found this film a little dry, to be honest, but the collective gasp of relief from fans of the old Hong Kong glory days was nearly audible around the globe.

Detective Dee and The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame then, is Tsui Hark’s ‘comeback’ – Hark was the progenitor of the ‘new school’ kung fu movement way back in 1983 with the aforementioned Zu : Warriors From The Magic Mountain, and he went on to direct and produce classic fare such as Once Upon a Time In China and the Swordsman series. Again, since the 90’s his output has slowed and become less vital, although in 2005 he helmed the somewhat underwhelming epic Seven Swords. Detective Dee has not had a wide release like Woo’s comeback film, but if you catch up with it on DVD, and are a fan of his previous output you will certainly not be disappointed.

The plot of the film is somewhat convoluted – Which is fitting, as it is being sold as a ‘period detective story’ rather than a straight-up kung fu film – Indeed the fights are not non-stop (although what is there is great). The excellent Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) stars as the titular detective, who is sprung from prison (where he had been sent for treason) by the soon-to-be Empress (who, incidentally, will be the first woman to hold such a post), to investigate a spate of unexplained deaths where the victims have literally appeared to burn up from the inside. He is joined in his task by Jin’ar, the Empress’s right hand woman, and the albino lawman Pei Donglai. To give away more of the plot would be spoiling things rather too much, however.

The film is, first and foremost a visual delight – A gigantic statue of Buddha which towers above the city is both a focal point for the film and where it starts and ends, the fight sequences (courtesy of the great Sammo Hung, who sadly remains behind the scenes) are flamboyant and imaginative, plenty of wirework and gusto, especially in the fight with the demonic ‘chaplain’, whose sleeves can fight independently of his body! We even get a kung fu deer fight later on, which is something I can happily say I’ve never seen before. The production design and cinematography are, for the most part, flawless. As for the plot, it’s actually pretty interesting, and certainly beats the usual kung fu revenge movie nonsense, although you will likely not find yourself as emotionally involved as Hark perhaps imagined. The subtitling on the UK DVD deserves a special mention for it’s rather more verbose than usual nature – It’s almost like professional brainbox Will Self was doing it for a quick paycheck.

Anyway, slightly disappointing drama aside, the film does what Hong Kong/Chinese cinema has been failing to do for the best part of a decade – it has a sense of wonder and fun that marks it apart from any Western fare on the market – The visuals, strange cultural/mythological references (talking deer, shape shifters, fire beetles), fight scenes and general not-too-gloomy feel of the film all combine to make it feel fresh, and that’s a heart-warming thing indeed.

Check out the trailer here!!

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