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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Film Review

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by Tinderlocks (subscribe)
I'm a budding sound designer and composer for film. I live, eat and breathe movies!
Published January 20th 2013

This movie was directed by Hark Tsui, who did the Once Upon A Time In China films as well as a whole bunch of modern classic martial arts flicks. He has a reputation, so I was kind of expecting something awesome. It was okay, kind of like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes meets Crouching Tiger - so, a detective in 600 AD china, who is astonishingly good at martial arts.

The story for the film is basically a bunch of people have been assassinated by means of spontaneously catching on fire. Rumours start emerging that a plot to kill the soon to be coroneted Empress is in effect. Detective Dee, who has been imprisoned for treason, is set free in order to solve the case. He is aided by the Empress's right hand lady, Jing'er and some dude with bleached hair called Pei Donglai (kind of like the Asian Draco Malfoy). Then heaps of crazy stuff happens and Detective Dee is just bloody awesome.

So, the costumes were good, as was the acting (always hard to tell in foreign films). The effects were okay, passable but no Hollywood blockbuster. Certain scenes did look very fake but I always am more lenient with CGI when it comes to Asian cinema.

The story was pretty damned far-fetched to be honest and the way it twisted and turned was supposed to be surprising, but ended up being a little silly.

The music was a bit too "Hollywood" if that even makes sense for a Chinese production. The score was persistently constant throughout. I don't remember one instance of silence or just sound and no music. It was incredibly cheesy and generic too. Sound design was not great; things sounded way too loud and some explosions just weren't loud enough.

Maybe it was the version that I watched that was bad quality. The sound for the fight scenes were great though. For me, the fight scenes saved the movie. They were outstanding.

The director definitely knew what he wanted and whoever did choreography for the fights, knew how to deliver. Let me just say first, the action scenes were not meant to be realistic but instead took the larger than life, impossible approach. They were done in a really creative and artistic way and were shot clearly too, so you could actually see what was going on in the fights instead of a blur of fists and legs. Without these scenes, I think the movie would have fallen flat.

Okay so there were a bunch of bad points to this film and one awesomely good point. It sort of balances out. It was a nice change to have a detective story instead of the usual revenge, rebellion, underdog mash that predominates most martial arts films. The plot was preposterous but it's not like Indiana Jones displays any realism. It was a fun watch, though a bit too "Hollywood" for my taste. I'd give it a 6 out of 10.

Directed by Hark Tsui.
Written by Chia-lu Chang (screenplay), Kuo-fu Chen, Lin Qianya (original story).
Starring Andy Lau, Chao Deng, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li.
Country: China, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin, Spanish

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Where: DVD / Blu-ray
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