Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

Review first published by LWLies.

To Western viewers who perhaps first encountered it in its most stylised wire-fu form through Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the popular genre of wuxia – or period martial chivalry – might seem merely an empty (albeit thoroughly entertaining) excuse for decorously mannered sensation and spectacle.

In this regard, Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame will certainly not disappoint, with its gravity-defying fight sequences, its extravagant use of colour and scale, and its at times surreal blend of swords, sorcery, and superstition, mystery and ‘magic deer’, ritual and hard rationalism.

Playing out like a live-action cartoon full of larger-than-life characters, astonishing set-pieces and lavishly hyperreal CGI, the film is simply breathtaking – and viewers will be likely to share the response of the foreign ambassador who, in the opening scene visits the nearly completed colossal statue of Buddha towering over the Imperial palace: “This is so spectacular!”

Yet given that its heroes are typically anti-authoritarian outsiders who fight oppression, wuxia is also a genre that speaks to power, acting as a vehicle for political commentary, even subversion. No wonder, then, that it was banned outright for decades under the Chinese Communist Party, until the liberalisation that came with 1980. Di Renjie, from whom the film takes its original Mandarin title (Di Renjie: Tong tian di guo), was a historical figure of the seventh century China – a high-ranking official celebrated for his wisdom and moderation both under successive Tang Dynasty Emperors and then under China’s first and last empress Wu Zetian (whom he served twice as chancellor).

Di, however, is just as famous for his fictionalised guise of ‘Judge Dee’ found in the 18th century Chinese detective novel ‘Dee Goong An’ and its 1940s English translation by Robert van Gulik (‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’) – and Zhang Jialou’s screenplay takes a similarly inventive approach to its subject, making Dee a dissident who once led a failed rebellion against Wu Zetian’s regency, and is, as the film opens, serving the eighth year of a prison sentence for his sedition.

In other words, the revisions made to history by Hark’s film may transform the real Di into the sort of ‘maverick’ detective or iconoclastic warrior beloved of genre – but they also make him a difficult figure for contemporary China’s prevailing ideology to accommodate. Rebels may be popular heroes, but they tend not to be quite so popular with authoritarian regimes.

It is 689 CE, and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is preparing to ascend the throne as Empress Regnant, even as she ruthlessly eliminates opposition from the misogynistic old guard. When the official in charge of constructing a monumental statue of Buddha bursts into flames and dies, and an investigating official also spontaneously combusts soon after, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is recalled from prison to solve the case.

Armed only with his wits and his Dragon Taming Mace, Dee must race to unmask the killer and prevent a chain of events that could prove “harmful to the Empire and the people.”  Yet amidst superstitious accusations, internecine struggles and labyrinthine conspiracies, Dee is unsure whether his efforts are being helped or hindered by Wu’s favourite Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bing-bing), by albino Supreme Court official Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), by his old friend and former dissident Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai), by the underground physician ‘Donkey Wang’ (Richard Ng), by the powerful yet mysteriously absent Imperial Chaplain, and by the would-be Empress herself.

“Where’s your integrity?” This question is asked twice of Dee, as his one-time allies in rebellion wonder how he can now be working for a repressive potentate – and it is also a question that gets right to the contradiction at the heart of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, as Dee seemingly betrays his own status as a rebellious wuxia hero by risking everything to support the continuity of a state that he freely concedes is corrupt, repressive and murderous. Dee acknowledges all the past crimes of Wu (who is clearly an embodiment of the current Chinese nation), but he also sees her as the best chance for future reform and progress.

Yet can the wuxia genre ever serve the interests of those in power while preserving its own integrity? Well, Hark’s film gets to have it both ways, foregrounding its own duplicitous game by focusing precisely on its characters’ many diversionary tactics, subterfuges, illusions, transfigurations, masks and double bluffs.

Here the trappings of genre itself are used as a palatable guise for exploring the state of a nation as it undergoes immense and rapid change – and if the film seems to express a guarded optimism that China can put behind it so many years of state oppression, it also ends on a deeply ambiguous note, with nothing really changing. Wu promises to restore the Tang Dynasty – and hence the status quo – at the end of her reign, while Dee retires to the underground where he has always really belonged.

After all, as Jing’er tells Dee, “The world is so big but you can’t fit in.” There might seem to be little place for a misfit like Detective Dee in today’s China either – but, paradoxically, his film would oust Inception from its No.1 place at the Chinese box office, and stay there for many weeks running, before winning a slew of major prizes (Best Director, Best Actress, est Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume and Make-Up Design, Best Sound Design) at the 30th Hong Kong Film Awards.

The wuxia may be a subversive genre, but sometimes it is wise for the powers that be, whether an ancient Empress or a modern regime, to give the people what they want. In return, Hark gives the state a wuxia which, much like its protagonist, is open to compromise. For while Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is certainly subversive and outspoken, it also extends at least half-hearted support to the Chinese authority, while holding it to a promise of improved conduct and continuing reforms. That the film is also vibrant, exciting, and not a little baffling, certainly sweetens – and in part covers over – a message that is, in the Chinese context, rather inflammatory.

Anton Bitel