DETECTIVE DEE - Tsui Hark's Comeback Gem
DETECTIVE DEE (mystery thriller)
Cast: Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, Carina Lau, Deng Chao, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Lu Yao and Tony Leung Ka-Fai
Director: Tsui Hark
Writers: Chen Kuo-fu and Zhang Jialu
Time: 123 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 4)
PREAMBLE: Throughout his career, Tsui Hark has always been known for his flamboyant flourishes, outrageous fantasies and over-the-top characters, all these at the expense of the narrative. Critics have noted that Tsui Hark is often obsessed with style over substance, with form over function so much so that his movies, like the 1983 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Shanghai Blues (1984) and the 2001 Legend of Zu, seemed like works of a genius gone amuck.
All these seems to have changed' with his latest effort, Detective Zee And The Mystery of the Phantom Flame! Here is a costume epic that makes Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and The Mummy series look like works of amateurs. It will be the film that hotshot directors like Ang Lee and John Woo would be trying to outdo in future.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Detective Dee Renjie (played by Andy Lau) was a real-life historical figure in Tang Dynasty of the 7th Century, made immortal by Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik's tales of Judge Dee. This movie is set about eight years after van Gulik's series concludes, with Dee being recalled to the service of the Imperial Palace after being imprisoned for criticising the political manoeuvring of Empress Wu (Carina Lau). A series of mysterious murders is threatening to upset the coronation ceremony of the Empress - and she needs to have the cases solved quickly.
Teaming up with Dee is the beautiful imperial aide Jing' Er (Li Bingbing) and judicial officer Bei Donglai (Deng Chao) who seem to have agenda of their own. The investigations take the trio to a giant Buddhist structure overlooking the palace, to the dark and dank underground Phantom Market, and the Forbidden Pavilion. Expectedly, these location sets are opulently and spectacularly constructed to serve as venues for 'wire-fu' fights and stunts (directed by Sammo Hung), as well as pieces de resistance of the movie.
HITS & MISSES: There can be no Tsui Hark epic without the supernatural elements to wow his audiences. These come in the form of self-implosive fiery deaths, facial transfigurations and even a talking deer (which are duly 'explained' later). Indeed, there are a few loose ends, glimpses of suspension wires and obvious miniature sets, but nothing worth complaining about. Tsui Hark delivers the magic that is set to enthral and marvel viewers. The only element missing is humour to colour the proceedings.
Andy Lau (pictured) lends both charisma and credibility to his role, making his 'Judge Dee' a man of wit and intelligence with just the requisite amount of vulnerability. Still, Lau tends to be upstaged by the enigmatic Li Bingbing, especially in a seduction scene at the start of their pairing-up. Carina Lau seems to be the weakest link of the main cast, not quite sure how much villainy and imperial dignity to lend to her Empress Wu. Deng Chao is suitably menacing as the albino officer and so is Tony Leung Kar-Fai as construction supervisor of the massive Buddha structure. It is nice of Tsui Hark to bring back his friends, Richard Ng and Teddy Robin, both playing the same role as the 'face-shifter'. Their presence should delight fans of yesteryear Hong Kong comedies.
THE LOWDOWN: Watch out, Tsui Hark is back to claim his 'maverick director' status!