For the longest time, one of the things that music had over film as an artistic medium was the ability to mashup styles. Of course, blending genres has always been possible and the interest in mixing new and old has always been there, but while remixes have become commonplace in mainstream music, they stay largely in the realm of experimental filmmaking, which could be chalked up to the prohibitive costs involved with taking risks in a film versus the lesser ones that can be tried in a song.
This was what was going through my head as I sat down to watch “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” the latest from Tsui Hark, a filmmaker who’s undergone so many career reinventions he’s probably lost track of what he’s reinvented in a culture of storytelling in China that’s long distorted the lines between history and myth. There was ample time to ponder this thoroughly since Hark’s embrace of special effects, the ones that have made it possible to let characters convincingly immolate into ashes and add the grandeur of landscapes befitting of such an epic production, threaten to turn the film’s central mystery into a blur, which “Detective Dee” is at times. However, that’s not to imply that the rest of the film isn't a whole lot of fun.
Much in the same way Guy Ritchie redefined Sherlock Holmes for crimesolving with martial arts and a less refined appearance, Hark has turned the whodunit into a larger-than-life wuxia spectacle that appears to combine all the director’s interests — the historical scope of “Once Upon a Time in China,” the supernatural elements of “Zu Warriors,” and of course, the seat-rattling action sequences he’s been known for since the days of teaming up with Jet Li.
It is another iconic Hong Kong action star, Andy Lau, who dons the silken tunic of the sleuth, a flowing garment that allows for a maximum amount of whoosh when he’s leg-sweeping a foe through a wall. Following the lead of the reimagined Holmes, Detective Dee is a bit of an eccentric and an expert of last resort for a newly-crowned empress (Carina Lau), who assigns him to discover the culprit behind a series of murders where the victims burn to death without being lit. It becomes Dee’s job to suss out the clues when the cause of death is speculated to be to everything from fire beetles to poisoned water to divine intervention.
The film could be paused at any second and framed, luxuriating in the vivid, glowing imagery of the empress’ kingdom, with dank swamps and unfinished construction (full of scaffolding to destroy in the film’s many wirefu sequences) lurking just behind the regal veneer of a palace crammed with warring subjects in the shadow of an endlessly gargantuan Buddha. While it’s the candy colored costumes and sets that grab the eye, it’s Hark’s reinterpretation of the underworld of hardboiled detective stories that makes the film pop with interrogations that translate the usual suspect Q & As into Sammo Hung-enhanced punches and kicks and a noirish spirit that occasionally takes literal form through the CG-enhanced mystical forces meant to throw Detective Dee off the trail.
Although its approach is clearly dictated by a contemporary way of thinking, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” is the kind of escapist entertainment that they just don’t make anymore, which also makes its allusions to real-world concerns such as political hegemony and torture feel a bit misplaced in this movie fantasia. Thankfully, weapons known as meteor hammers do not.