Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Judge Di Renjie, the legendary sleuth of 7th-century China made famous to Western readers in the novels by Robert van Gulik, takes on the case of the flaming monks in this epic martial-arts whodunit from veteran Hong Kong director Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China). Always a swami of cinematic compression, Tsui Hark can pack reams of exposition and sensation into a dozen pristinely composed shots that take only a few seconds of screen time. His trickster genius is shared by the main characters — the Empress (Carina Lau), her loyal adviser (Li Bingbing) and Detective Dee himself (Andy Lau) — each of whom is supremely adept and understandably suspicious of everyone else. The films boasts nonstop stunt work in the great Hong Kong tradition: tree-hopping, a fierce battle on two galloping horses and plenty of dexterous swordplay, all choreographed by veteran Hong Kong star Sammo Hung. Packed with a magic talking deer, a red-robed river king and characters transformable by acupoints, Detective Dee is a pinwheeling narrative and cinematic delight. We call it Crouching Tiger, Freakin' Masterpiece.