Writer: Lim Chang Moh Writer Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
“Once Upon A Time In China”, “The Legend of Zu” and “Seven Swords”
Throughout his film-making career, Tsui Hark has always been known for his flamboyant flourishes, outrageous fantasies and over-the-top characters, all these at the expense of the narrative. Critics have noted that Tsui Hark is often obsessed with style over substance, with form over function so much so that his movies, like the 1983 "Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain", "Shanghai Blues" (1984) and the 2001 "Legend of Zu", seemed like works of a genius gone amuck.
Will he ever strike a balance between the two extremes? Will the veteran film-maker control his creativity and make a comeback as one of Hong Kong's foremost auteurs? The answer is a resounding 'yes' with his latest effort, "Detective Zee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame"! Here is a costume epic that makes Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Mummy" series look like works of amateurs. It will be the film that hotshot directors like Ang Lee and John Woo would be trying to outdo in future.
Detective Dee Renjie (played by Andy Lau) was a real historical figure in the Tang Dynasty of the 7th Century, made immortal by Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik's tales of "Judge Dee". Chronologically, the movie is set about eight years after van Gulik's series concludes, with Dee being recalled to the service of the Imperial Palace after being imprisoned for criticising the Empress Wu (Carina Lau). A series of mysterious murders is threatening to ruin the coronation ceremony of the Empress - and she needs to have the cases solved quickly.
Teaming up with Dee is the beautiful imperial aide Jing' Er (Li Bingbing) and judicial officer Bei Donglai (Deng Chao) who obviously have agendas of their own. The investigations take the trio to a giant Buddhist structure overlooking the palace, to the dark and dank underground Phantom Market, and the Forbidden Pavilion. Expectedly, these location sets are opulently and spectacularly constructed to serve as venues for 'wire-fu' fights and stunts (directed by Sammo Hung), as well as 'pieces de resistance' of the movie.
Of course, there can be no Tsui Hark epic without the supernatural elements to tickle the fancies of his audiences. These come in the form of self-implosive combustion deaths, facial transfigurations and even a talking deer (all of which are duly 'explained' later). Indeed, there are a few loose ends, like glimpses of suspension wires and obvious miniature sets, but nothing worth delving into. Tsui Hark delivers 'cine-magic' that is set to enthral and marvel at -- and the only quality missing is humour to colour the proceedings.
As the title character, Andy Lau lends both charisma and credibility to his role, making his 'Judge Dee' a man of wit and intelligence with just the requisite amount of vulnerability. Still, Lau tends to be upstaged by the enigmatic Li Bingbing, especially in a seduction scene at the start of their pairing-up. Carina Lau seems to be the weakest link of the main cast, not quite sure how much villainy and imperial dignity to lend to her Empress Wu. Deng Chao is suitably menacing as the albino officer and so is Tony Leung Kar-Fai as construction supervisor of the massive Buddha structure. It is nice of Tsui Hark to bring back his friends, Richard Ng and Teddy Robin, both playing the same role as the 'face-shifter'. Their presence should delight fans of yesteryear Hong Kong comedies.
When the movie ends, we should have no doubt that Tsui Hark is back to claim his 'maverick director' status!Cinema Online, 29 September 2010