An inventive marriage of ancient China and Agatha Christie, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame” is a lavishly overwrought historical whodunit set around the controversial coronation of the country’s first empress. A string of hideously baroque murders and various imperial intrigues keep Tsui Hark’s costume drama-actioner percolating most of the way, though it eventually bogs down in a surfeit of red herrings and CGI. Tsui’s reputation and a name cast led by Andy Lau will ease access into offshore niche release and killer ancillary. Pic should catch fire locally Sept. 29.
Zhang Jialu’s screenplay centers around the character of Di Renjie, or Detective Dee (played by Andy Lau), a real-life Tang Dynasty official who has since been popularized in mystery novels and TV series. When the film opens in 689 A.D., Dee has been imprisoned for eight years for opposing Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), who is about to take the throne as empress — an event being memorialized by the construction of an enormous Buddha statue that towers over the palace.
But the future empress orders Dee’s release from prison so he can investigate the murders of two high-ranking court officials, both of whom burst into flame upon being exposed to sunlight. While the killings seem to have been the work of divine intervention (both victims made the mistake of moving around the sacred amulets inside the Buddha statue), Dee eventually surmises that a specific type of poison was used.
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Indeed, every superstition and supernatural act in “Detective Dee” turns out to have a rational explanation, from the ability of certain characters to achieve facial transfiguration (essentially a variation on the contempo latex-mask trick) to the mysterious talking stag who occasionally materializes to offer Wu royal advice. Adding to the welter of narrative complications and political maneuvers is Dee’s inability to trust any of his cohorts — they include Wu’s most trusted servant, Jing’er (Li Bingbing), and judicial officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) — as well as his own conflicted feelings about the empress’ ascendancy.
Tsui’s first period epic since 2005’s “Seven Swords,” “Detective Dee” is a riot of visual imagination. Every widescreen frame of Chan Chi-ying and Chan Chor-keung’s lensing is packed with resplendent detail, from the ornate set work by production designer James Chiu and art director Wu Zhen to the richly tailored costumes by Bruce Yu. Carina Lau’s coiffure seems to grow more elaborate with every scene; at one point, her hair appears to have been fed through the spokes of a pre-industrial-era wheel.
Such outre visual touches provide some distraction from a narrative that grows more intricate yet also more laborious as it progresses. (At one point, “Detective Dee” becomes a sort of vampire movie, insofar as sunlight becomes lethal to those infected with the poison.) While the mystery’s solution is satisfying enough, it essentially serves as a front for a political parable about the importance of respecting the divine mandate of the monarch, so long as said monarch doesn’t abuse his (or her) power.
Performances are well handled, especially by Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li, whose characters form a sort of emotional triangle. Visual effects are distractingly obvious in certain sequences, especially one that finds Dee clashing with an entire herd of computer-generated stags, though the recurrent image of characters igniting from within is disturbingly memorable.