Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a mystery based on a fictional account of Di Renjie, one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang Dynasty. Released in the US on September 2, 2011, it’s a co-production between China and Hong Kong. Directed by Tsui Hark from a screenplay written by Chen Kuofu, the movie features art direction and fight choreography by Sammo Hung. The film stars Andy Lau as Detective Dee, Carina Lau as Empress Wu Zetian, Li Bingbing as Shangguan Jing’er, Deng Chao as Pei Donglai, and Tony Leung Ka-fai as Shatuo Zhong.
In the year AD 690, when the mysterious deaths of a series of loyal senior officials from what appears to be spontaneous combustion threaten to delay the inauguration of Empress Wu Zetian, she summons the infamous Detective Dee back from the prison into which she cast him eight years earlier for speaking against her. Dee proves that his detective skills have not rusted by his time in prison, but his investigation is hampered by the distrust of his two assigned assistants, political maneuvering by a rival Imperial candidate, repeated assassination attempts and possibly by the Empress herself. Dee’s search for the hidden truth behind the deaths and who is responsible will call upon all of his forensic and martial arts skills and his unswerving devotion to justice and the truth, no matter who gets in his way.
–Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
My family and I went to see this movie at my urging. From the preview, the visuals looked there. It helped that I adore mysteries with incisive detectives.
I came away excited by the characters and pondering the rather simple story that twined the past with the present in a very real life sort of way. I mean who can hate on a story where a person is burned from the inside out upon contact with the sun?
—Pro and Cons: A Review
To be frank my family came out of the theater split: two of us loved the movie and two of us only thought it okay and that probably because of cognitive dissonance.
I enjoyed the movie, in spite of it’s faults.
Right off, the visuals pulled me in. It looked like the director went old school with the sets, using only a few, well-placed CGI shots. In the reviews I’ve read they said the opposite – it all being CGI – either way I feel it worked. To me I liked that it looked more real, almost like a vintage movie – it made it feel historical rather than dated. I agree it didn’t have visual punch like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was meant to feel like a folk hero story, which it is. The CGI just filled in the sets where reality couldn’t.
(As an aside: I really, really dislike it when anyone goes off on the use of CGI. When an industry professional they like uses CGI they call it innovative; when they don’t like or are critical of another industry professional, using the same effects, they say the CGI was overused and obvious. From George Lucas to Tsui Hark you will find a lot of the set effects are miniatures or sculptures and the people effects are wires or costumes. People assume tons of CGI were used, for example, in this movie. I count less uses of CGI than fingers on one hand. Get your facts straight.)
Contrasting the visuals was the major fault of the movie: the way in which the audience experienced the story as a whole. In an American movie we unite sounds and visuals to create a life-like simulation of reality. When you’re watching a subtitled movie there is an element of voyeurism - of participation because the audience has to read what is being said. Because of this the cutting of the movie is very important and very delicate. We need enough screen time on each frame to read the dialogue, then look up and take in the visuals. If there isn’t enough time to do both then the audience feels they missed out on something. Even if they still got it, they’ll rationalize it must be fluff because missing so and so frame didn’t matter much. In Detective Dee we didn’t always have enough time to read and watch, at times you had to sacrifice one for the other. This is not good. (Read my post My Love Affair with Movies at http://yaykisspurr.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/my-love-affair-with-movies/ to read more about my thoughts on subtitles.)
The story followed more of a Chinese storytelling setup. This isn’t bad per se but in these modern times by contrasting a contemporary element to the more traditional, old-fashioned ways we freshen those ways. This gives the modern audience an element to relate to and in essence, experience old ways as if new. By flip flopping the introductions of the plot and characters in a different order we’d have established a heightened sense of suspense that a traditional setup, like used here, doesn’t inspire as strongly.
From Detective Dee to his assistants to the villain and the Empress – all were well cast and really represented their characters. They really make this movie watchable because they backed up the story structure already present.
The story flowed well with the look and feel of the film. This probably had a lot to do with the director’s changes to the story he demanded when he accepted the movie. One such they’ve admitted was him wanting a female for the chief officer instead of a male – good call. We’ll never know all the little choices he made to reshape the film, but it speaks to his skills as a director.
I loved the fire turtle storyline where the Empress’ officials spontaneously combusted. This really worked to me and besides the characters made the movie. I liked when they went in the underground bazaar to find out what kind of poison could do this and when he went to the monastery to find out about the fire turtles. It made sense it had something to do with overthrowing the Empress because most rulers have some element that wants to rebel against the current rule. Learning about the chaplain and how she’d supported her Empress because she believed in the unification of China won over Detective Dee and made a change in him that in turn affected the Empress. Isn’t that what we want in a movie?
Yes, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is rather difficult to watch, keeping up with the dialogue and visuals, but it’s worth the effort. The characters take us on a journey of adventure and mystery from their own individual point of views. It makes for a rich experience and a rather depthful story.
For me as a writer, the story is all about the character. Plot can be really exciting and compelling but if the characters aren’t right for the story then it falls flat. The balance between the three main protagonists: Detective Dee, the supreme court official Pei Donglai and the Empress’ chief officer Shangguan Jing’er really worked because they all wanted different things. They went after those desires in different ways, coming at the mystery from different angles. The balance came about by each character’s motivations and methods taking them down divergent story lines leading to the same place. Their individual motivations for finding out just what was going on and where these fire turtles were striking from made a rather simple story rather compelling.
Detective Dee wanted to know what effect the fire turtles would have on his country and to know this is to know their origin. It also means delving into the events of the Empire after his imprisonment. This brings him into conflict with one of the old Emperor’s sons, the Empress and his own brother who has ambitions of his own.
Official Donglai wanted to rise in his position in the supreme court; he held great ambition and would do anything, use anyone to do so, and exposing this plot against the Empress would catapult him. He is suspicious of Detective Dee and his effect on his own position. Detective Dee seduces him using his unusual methods. In the end, he goes out, loyal to his role in the Empire.
Officer Jing’er wanted to maintain her loyalty to the Empress but also felt herself falling for Detective Dee. More than any of the three she felt caught in the web of history linking the past to the future. In her dual roles to the Empress she was the woman’s greatest confidante and greatest potential enemy. Pulled by her dual roles and dual desires she got caught in the crossfires.
The balance of the protagonists is offset nicely by the balance of the dual antagonists: Shatuo Zhong and the Empress Wu.
Shatuo Zhong wanted revenge, not only on the Empress for taking his hand as punishment for treason but on Detective Dee for being the instigator of his treason and failing. His duel desires offset Jing’er’s duality well and you couldn’t figure out who was the guilty one until Dee himself did.
The Empress wanted to unify her country under the vision she saw, with herself at the head. She felt anyone she needed to eliminate to obtain her goal was worth taking out. Learning such wasn’t true hit her hard. She made a nice catalyst causing all the drama and angst around her as well as the perfect distraction as to the main villain. I appreciated the ending where Dee gives over his loyalty to her because he understood her motivations and her tactics. It’s a more traditional story resolution so modern audiences perhaps might not see it the way I do.
As writers, the greatest thing we can do for our audience is to create motivations and desires from which our characters, whether hero or villain can act. This movie stands as a great example of such motivations.
Growing up with four siblings, I had a plethora of conflicting motivations with which to observe. It took me many years of watching the resulting string of cause and effect to understand their points of views. Even understanding the whys behind their choices doesn’t make me understand why they continue down that course.
In love my sister is insanely loyal and constant to her partner. One brother acts positively monk-like. When he does commit he’ll do so with great devotion. Another has a child and works hard at maintaining his relationship with his spouse. The last seeks love with obsessive desire beyond all else. Alas I remain rather cynical on the topic, unsure if true love will ever find me. My point is that that’s the beauty of the human condition: divergent thoughts, actions and motivations to our own make us think and ponder our choices. As a writer I have come to see it is also what makes our characters feel alive and human. It’s a clue to the beauty of a well written movie.
The story was good, the visuals were good – this doesn’t matter if we can’t take them all in. Overall though an enjoyable mystery with well balanced characters. Whether as a writer or as a member of the audience when I watch a movie I want to know that the characters are invested in a common cause but for their own reasons and will go about things in their own ways. This makes for compelling movie making.
What do you think? Can a movie overcome hard to handle subtitles and dull but true visuals if the characters are properly motivated and the story is fun? Comment now……