REVIEW: Hong Kong's Tsui Hark Makes a Grand, Loopy Spectacle with Detective Dee

Movieline Score:

When I saw Hong Kong producer-director Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame at the Venice Film Festival last year, I lamented that although American viewers would probably be able to track the movie down on DVD or online, the picture wasn't likely to get a U.S. theatrical release. Happily, I was wrong, and if you're lucky enough to live in one of the cities where Detective Dee is playing, you too will now have a chance to witness Tsui's glorious and somewhat unhinged vision as he tackles an episode in the real-life history of China -- the ascent of the first female emperor to the throne -- adding fanciful touches like spontaneous human combustion and mysterious creepy-crawlies with dangerous powers. It's the kind of ambitious, loopy spectacle that begs to be seen on the big screen if at all possible.

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 John 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).

The plot of Detective Dee is so convoluted, and so dependent on elaborate explication, that there's no shame in giving up on the subtitles and just focusing on the picture's gorgeous visuals and beautifully executed special effects. 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.

I've seen Detective Dee twice now, and I still don't think I've taken the full measure 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, though like many of the people and creatures in Detective Dee, he isn't exactly what he appears to be. 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, but I'd urge you to instead see this grand, loopy spectacle for yourself, on any screen if you can't make it to one of the big ones. The talking deer is worth it. And if a Fire Turtle should land on you, be sure to brush it off quick.

[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2010 Venice Film Festival.]