In a strange alternative past set during China’s Tang Dynasty, a woman is about to ascend to the Emperor’s throne. She has ordered that a great Buddha statue be built in her likeness, and it must be ready for her coronation. But on a tour for a visiting dignitary, a high-ranking official mysteriously burns from the inside out. The soon-to-be-empress, Wu Zetian, tells her most trusted warrior, the beautiful lady Shangguan Jing’er, to bring back Detective Dee, who has been jailed by Wu for daring to oppose her, to solve the mystery. Thus begins Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a high-concept kung-fu adventure that includes talking deer, fiery beetles, and some of the best CGI art direction in recent memory.
This is not an intellectual film, nor is it meant to be. It is a strange combination of Pirates of the Caribbean, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Indiana Jones, the film is both sumptuous and thrilling, with enough action to keep the audience entertained at the same time as keeping the clues rolling in to give the audience a chance to guess who the murderer is. It’s always refreshing to see women in martial arts films as more than just pretty accessories. Not that the roles are not in their way stereotypical; Jing’er is an angry woman fighting for a place in a man’s world, and there is naturally sexual tension between her and Detective Dee. But she can hold her own next to the boys in a fight. Detective Dee, played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau, is of course smarter and faster than everyone around him, not believing as many do that the causes of the flaming deaths are supernatural.
If there is a fault in the film, it’s over complication. Though the film is under two hours, director Hark Tsui manages to pack just about anything he can think of to fill up the film. Rarely does five minutes pass without a battle (large or small). But the film is also extremely funny; the actors seem to be aware of the extremes of the plot and adjust their performances accordingly. While not quite going to extremes themselves, they all give their characters an earnestness that brings the humour out. But this might give the film more weight than it’s due. This is not a weighty film, it is a popcorn film, and there is nothing wrong with that. The film has a good enough plot and enough action and quirkiness to keep its audience interested.