During the long stretch in the 2000s, Tsui Hark’s so-called comeback movies ranging from 2001’s The Legend Of Zu <蜀山傳> and 2005’s Seven Swords <七劍> to 2008’s Missing <深海尋人> and All About Women <女人不坏> were all heavily hyped but fell short of their intended targets. Frankly, his last best movie back then was 2000’s Time And Tide <順流逆流>, and his directing effort has never been recovered ever since.
Fortunately, at long last, Tsui Hark has finally made a true comeback and returns to form in Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame <狄仁傑之通天帝國>. The movie is a vintage Tsui Hark stamped all over the place while breathes a refreshing change of pace to the wuxia genre by mixing a fascinating blend of Agatha Christie-like detective mystery, Chinese folklore fantasy and exhilarating action set pieces. No doubt this is quite possibly the most inventive Chinese movie blockbuster ever made in a long time.
Set in 689 A.D. on the eve of the coronation of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, the movie opens with a bang where a series of bizarre circumstances caused two high-ranking court officials mysteriously died of spontaneous combustion after being exposed to sunlight. One of the death happened inside the construction of a Towering Buddha, in which the one-armed construction supervisor Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) claims it might cause by some divine intervention.
But the relentless albino judicial officer Pei Donglai (Deng Cao) begs to differ, claiming it could have been something else entirely. Soon Empress Wu takes advice from her trusted imperial chaplain (who appears in the shape of a talking deer — no, I kid you not) and decides to set free of prisoner Dee (Andy Lau), who once an imperial court judge before sentenced for eight years in the jail following from his rebellion. Wu enlists him to investigate the mysterious deaths and hope to solve the case as soon as possible before the coronation takes place.
Together with Pei Donglai and Wu’s beloved protege, Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), they must race against time to nab the murderer as well as uncover the hidden agenda behind the possible rebellion against the crowning of the very first female emperor in China.
Chen Kuo-Fu and Zhang Jialu’s screenplay is no doubt over-convoluted and chock-full of red herrings at each passing moment but there’s no denying that such narrative thrust proves to be a blessing in disguise where Tsui manages to make everything as tightly-paced and compulsively watchable without missing a beat.
Not only that, Tsui also excels in term of delivering an eye-catching blend of visual imagination that propels this movie — something we have sorely missed from his touch after all these years — ranging from James Chiu’s elaborate production design (particularly the wildly inventive design of the murky underground city of Phantom Bazaar) to Bruce Yu’s opulent costume designs. But the biggest awe-inspiring set piece seen here is none others than Wu Zhen, Terrance Chung and Choo Sung-Bong’s magnificent art direction of the Towering Buddha, which measured at an astonishing 80 metres tall.
Action set pieces, in the meantime, are visually engaging and entertaining enough to sustain the viewers, thanks to Sammo Hung’s unique wire-fu choreography. The highlight is, of course, the elaborate fight scene in the Phantom Bazaar against the shape-shifting, red-cloaked Chaplain and a band of masked assassins. Aside from the usual gravity-defying fight sequences, each respective characters have their own fighting style and choice of weapons — Dee’s mace which comes with a tuning fork of a device capable to exploit the weakness of metal and lead as well as breaking the enemy’s weapons; Shangguan’s whip; and Pei Donglai’s throwaway war-axe.
The cast is equally top-notch, with Andy Lau excels in his charismatic and engaging role as the titular hero, while both Li Bingbing and Deng Cao shine in their roles with physical aplomb and credible performances. Carina Lau, on the other hand, delivers an unforgettable performance as the ruthless and cold Empress Wu. Not to forget are delightful cameo appearances by Richard Ng and the long-missed Teddy Robin Kwan.
Although Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame <狄仁傑之通天帝國> remains a flawed piece of work — uneven special effects and sometimes erratic storytelling — this movie is one of Tsui Hark’s most accomplished efforts in years.