Tsui Hark’s visually sumptuous Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a strong comeback for the veteran Hong Kong wuxia-maker and another triumph for the even more seasoned action director Sammo Hung (here working with Tsui for the first time after a long career choreographing acrobatic antics and wire fights for the likes of King Hu, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-wai, and Stephen Chow).
Magnificent and cheesy, the latest and most proudly absurd of Chinese historical spectaculars, Detective Dee is a cinematic comic book for people who are sick of the mode. Arriving at summer’s end, this supernatural period fiction sweeps the season’s accumulated superhero detritus straight into the Hollywood dream dump. Tsui’s tale of China’s late seventh-century Empress Wu (Carina Lau) careens from set piece to set piece, distinguished by its nonstop action, emphatic expository dialogue, bird’s-eye angles, decorative snow flurries, and cosmic winds (not to mention fabulous costumes and hairdos). As one character describes the so-called Ghost Market to another, it’s “a spooky pandemonium.”
The real Wu, a Tang Dynasty royal concubine and onetime Buddhist nun, was supported in her bid for power by China’s Buddhist hierarchy (even promoted as a bodhisattva). Tsui makes Wu’s political aspirations manifest in a massive public works project and wonder of the world—a 200-foot Towering Buddha graced with her own visage. But before she can ascend, one architect assigned to the project bursts into flames and disintegrates, and then another suffers the same fate. What is behind these mysterious eruptions? Fire beetles, missing amulets, treacherous sorcery? Advised by a sacred talking stag, the would-be empress frees her imprisoned onetime political opponent Detective Dee (HK superstar Andy Lau), also based on a historical figure, and dispatches her glamorous female lieutenant (Bingbing Li) to draft him into service.
Its narrative impenetrable yet obvious, Detective Dee is the sort of movie where one never knows for sure if it’s supposed to be day or night (or, in the Ghost Market, whether underwater or on dry land). The space is similarly indeterminate—interior or exterior, digitally manipulated or photographic, every scene has the same flickering grotto lighting. However fanciful, the plot to topple the Towering Buddha at Wu’s coronation ceremony has unavoidably contemporary resonance. Detective Dee, which was shown earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, is opening in time for the tenth anniversary of 9/11—set in the legendary past, it could be the disaster’s most festive, least objectionable allegory.