September 7, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 2010)


From the Cinémathèque, I bike hurriedly to Concordia University's Hall building, on the opposite side of the downtown area, hoping not to miss my next film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Although its lengthy title situates the movie well within the Gumshoe Fiction genre, like A.C. Doyle books or The Thin Man films with William Powell, what attracts me to the film is its origin (Hong Kong), the melding of detective fiction with wuxia elements and its director Tsui Hark.

One of the most popular filmmakers in Hong Kong in the 90s, having directed landmark films of Hong Kong Cinema like the Once upon a time in China trilogy starring Jet li and the action-drama Time and Tide, Tsui Hark has been somewhat absent from film this decade, after a somewhat failed migration to Hollywood. A well-known action and spectacle-oriented director, his new film come with great expectations, yes, but also great excitement from the Fantasia audience. 

By the time my brother and I are sitting down inside the theater and the movie's about to start, I notice that there's barely an empty seat in the house, a testament to Hark's notoriety here in America. But, following a nostalgic projection of an old 35 mm trailer for a Shaw Bros film, as I watch Detective Dee's flashy intro, I get the sinking feeling it may have been wise to place my faith elsewhere. In the movie, an exiled Chinese detective called Dee (Hong Kong star Andy Lau) is summoned by the future empress to solve a series of mysterious deaths that threaten her inauguration ceremony.

Although Hark makes good use of his limited budget, whether in production value or special effects, right from its initial setup, the movie's script feels convoluted, while the actors perform as if they're in a campy picture. The direction and editing; quick, gauche and scattered; amplify the obtuse nature of the story. Neither Andy Lau's dazzling martial arts work and leading man charisma, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai's presence, or the legendary Sammo Hung's creative action choreography can redeem the ridiculousness and predictability of the plot devices Hark uses throughout the movie. The laughable supernatural elements of the story remind me of The Legend of Zu, a previous Hark movie which suffered from the same uninspired use of the Supernatural.

Additionally, Detective Dee suffers from an excessively dense plot, what I like to attribute to a filmmaker's undue reliance on story over character, one of the unfortunate elements of Michael Bay films, for example. Takashi Miike, the Japanese elephant, uses camp and sometimes heavy plotting to highlight their ridiculousness and prevalence. Although too intellectually-inclined, Robert Rodriguez's used them in the recent Machete as a play on old Grindhouse films, which are a major influence on his film-making. The difference between their post-modern use of those elements and Hark's is conscious intent. Detective Dee seems accidentally mishmash-ed and chaotic.

As the projection ends, I quickly leave the theater, my head groggy from the experience. It's always a bad sign when you can't wait to leave.