Postcard from Venice: On John Woo, Tsui Hark and the Glorious Nuttiness of Detective Dee

Two nights ago here in Venice, John Woo received a Golden Lion lifetime-achievement award, which may not mean much to people who have seen only his American movies. In fact, while waiting in line for a screening the other day, I heard one badge-holder (speaking English, though I couldn't tell what country he was from) explaining to another who he is. I would have thought anyone in the world who'd managed to get accreditation to a major film festival would know John Woo, but apparently not.

Woo has certainly been prolific over the years (he began working in film in the late 1960s), but the pictures he made in Hong Kong from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, before he went to Hollywood -- among them The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Bullet in the Head -- are so vital (in addition to being gloriously, crazily bloody) they could almost justify a lifetime-achievement award on their own. Woo also presented a new movie (out of competition) at the festival this year, the martial arts mystery Reign of Assassins, which he co-directed with Su Chao-pin.

In general, Asian cinema has been remarkably well-represented this year in Venice: Films in competition include Anh Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood (which, unfortunately, I was unable to catch), Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (which screens Wednesday) and legendary Hong Kong producer-director Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame. What's not to love about a title like that?

The reality is that the plot of Detective Dee is so convoluted, and so dependent on elaborate explication, that about midway through I gave up following the subtitles and instead focused on the picture's gorgeous visuals and beautifully executed special effects. The prolific and boundlessly creative Tsui -- who was born in Vietnam -- is something of a godfather to modern Hong Kong cinema. Early in his career he produced and co-developed one of Woo's early successes, the 1986 A Better Tomorrow. In fact, movies he's produced have helped launch the careers of huge stars like Woo, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat and Brigitte Lin. He's also directed 40-odd pictures himself, among them Green Snake (1993) and The Blade (1995).

I wonder if Tsui ever sleeps. After spending two hours processing the visual splendor and narrative insanity of Detective Dee, I'm betting he doesn't. The plot, in the end, doesn't matter much: It's 690 AD, Tang Dynasty, and China is about to crown its first female emperor, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau). Naturally, Wu has enemies -- there are those who just don't want girl cooties on the throne. Meanwhile, officials have been spontaneously combusting around the capital, Luoyang City. Determined to get to the heart of these bizarre goings-on, Wu turns to smarty-pants detective Dee Renjie (played by Andy Lau, of the Infernal Affairs movies), whom she'd imprisoned eight years earlier when he'd criticized her ambitious ascent to power.

detective_dee_250-1.jpgI'm still processing some of the visual nuttiness, and lushness, Tsui has packed in there: A deer with a painted forehead appears in Empress Wu's court, and this isn't just any deer, but a talking deer -- he warns the empress of impending danger. There's much of the usual leaping and slow-motion somersaults, in which human bodies in brightly colored robes dissolve into swirls of color. (The action was choreographed by the great Sammo Hung.) Empress Wu makes an appearance in a suit of gold and black armor, with an elaborate gold filigree headdress that looks like it was stolen from the top of a cathedral. And when those officials catch fire from within, the flames flicker and flutter out through their eye sockets, before their bodies break into pieces and fall away to charred bits.

But that's not all! You're probably wondering about the mystery of the Fire Turtles (I sure was), and I'll bet you're demanding to know who, exactly, is Donkey Wang? ("Wang, the Donkey with scabies?" one character asks. Indeed, the very same.)

I could answer these questions for you, and I probably should, since I've had the advantage of watching this grand, loopy spectacle on the big screen. And given the nearly nonexistent theatrical distribution of Hong Kong films in the United States, most interested parties will probably end up watching Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame at home. But trust me: The talking deer is worth it. And if a Fire Turtle should land on you, be sure to brush it off quick.

[Top photo of Li Bingbing, director Tsui Hark and Carina Lau by Vincenzo Pinzo/AFP/Getty Images]