It’s 690 B.C. in ancient China, on the eve of a coronation that will vest a woman with the power of emperor for the first time in China’s history. Looming in the background is a titanic Buddha, under construction as a tribute to the empress’ power and the witness of several spontaneous human combustions. This is the mystery that the empress calls Detective Dee back from prison to solve—the mystery of the phantom flame, a phenomenon that has felled several important personages surrounding the empress and the construction of the Buddha.
Dee, played by leading talent Andy Lau, is a sagacious, kung fu-fighting sleuth who commits his all to solving the case despite a history of fomenting rebellion against the empress. In the process, he discovers a cloak-and-dagger subplot involving contending factions vying for the crown à la Game of Thrones. While Dee steers clear of external pressures and incentives, he becomes pseudo-romantically involved with the empress’ loyal protector, Jing’er, a feisty and limber sidekick with her own branch of rope-whipping kung fu (the movie approaches a sex scene but disappointingly fails to deliver).
While the plot is certainly convoluted enough to engross most people for two hours, the real magnum-ness of the opus is the visual eye-feast. Each scene is lush with magical floating petals, lambent gold lighting, majestic talking deer, purple skies, or subterranean Dante-esque rivers populated by airborne automatons. The kung fu scenes amplify the imagery and make the action scenes resemble a prolonged minuet danced underwater. It is elaborate and entertaining. The choreography, engineered by Jackie Chan’s masterful mentor Sammo Hung, is drum-tight and applicable anywhere in the movie, from fighting deer to one-on-one battles suspended in mid-air by ropes. The rapid-fire kung fu movements parallel the battery of plot twists, and both work to keep the viewer attentive.
Like any movie that employs fantasy elements and details a complicated story, Detective Dee toes the line of melodrama. This is compounded by the sometimes artificial graphics, such as the immolating victims of the phantom flame or city-wide shots that end up not being on-par with the rest of the movie’s visual splendor. Bouts of humor manage to mitigate this, allowing the artificiality to fit with the style of the movie—a tad over-the-top, like many wuxia films, but by no means kitsch or pretentious.
Certain melodramatic instances are also infused with greater meaning considering contemporary China’s repressive atmosphere. The movie ends with the compelling message that right and wrong should not be confused when in office, and that there is a right time to turn power over to others. Echoing Henry David Thoreau, a blind man warns Dee as he is released from incarceration that one might be ultimately freer “inside” (of prison) than “outside,” where the empress’s dissenter-crushing stratagems have engendered fear and dissent. Her adage “to achieve greatness, everyone is expendable,” has motivated her to employ ruthless schemes against the people and inevitably brings to mind the current Chinese authorities’ reactions to the tragic train crash this past summer. Dee, in the end, gently reminds her that it’s torture that alienates the people from the empire. The film thus shies away from a typically Manichean good-bad dichotomy and, despite its sweeping imagery, offers some important messages.
In theatres Sept. 16.