The cloud wisps that materialize into the written introduction of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame inform us in stately language that the film is set in the year 689 A.D., when the Chinese regent Wu Zetian was about to become history’s first female emperor. Rival warlords aligned to block Wu’s ascendancy and, the narration adds in a switch to pulp-magazine idiom, “All hell was about to break loose.” Hellfire, to be exact: as they oversee the construction of a giant Buddha to honor the Empress’s coronation, several high officials literally burst into flame, their bodies quickly reduced to a sulfurous, satanic char. The Devil was rarely such a showman.
Tsui Hark, though, has been raising cinematic hell for more than three decades. The Hong Kong movie mogul — who was born in Saigon, studied film at the University of Texas and worked at one of Manhattan’s first cable TV stations — went on to direct about half of the best pictures from Hong Kong’s golden age (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and to produce most of the other half (John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story, Yuen Wo-ping’s Iron Monkey). From a tiny colony of 6 million souls came a stream of vital, eviscerating melodramas that taught Hollywood how to infuse action films with a whirling visual poetry. Behind the camera or as a prodding overseer, Tsui Hark was the central creative figure of a truly popular national cinema.
Like other Hong Kong directors, he did a stretch in L.A., helming a couple of Jean Claude Van Damme movies, and returning home when the international taste for the S.A.R.’s low-budget thrillers had atrophied. The worldwide market was interested only in traditional martial-arts fantasies — and, really, only two of those: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Tsui Hark’s gorgeous new adventure, which had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival and is now opening in the U.S., meets those two winners on their own level and often soars deliriously above.
In the teeming, scheming cast of characters summoned by screenwriter Zhang Jialu, five stand out. Pride of place goes to the Empress, a believer in the maxim that “When one aims to achieve greatness, everyone is expendable.” Played with a sultry intelligence by Carina Lau, who sports a soul queen’s exotic headdresses and charcoal eyebrows like Ash Wednesday soot, Wu radiates the haughtiness of one who was not born to power but achieved it through ruthless majesty; she can seduce or threaten with equal authority and ease. Her one trusted aide is Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), a porcelain beauty who looks delicate and maidenly with her long hair pinned back, an earth goddess when she lets it down; Jing’er is also pretty handy with a whip. Far down the chain of command from Wu’s right-hand woman is a man who lost his right hand when Wu condemned him to prison in an earlier revolt. Shatuo Zhong (longtime Hong Kong slickie Tony Leung Ka-fei) was a construction foreman at the time of the first flame-outs. Could he bear the Empress the slightest grudge?
The central quintet is completed by two men assigned to investigate the officials’ fiery deaths. Deng Chao (Pei Donglai), an officer of the Supreme Court, is righteous, imaginative, quirky and literally colorless — sort of an Asian albino Christopher Walken. He is joined by the gifted sleuth Di Renjie — Detective Dee (Andy Lau) — who was captured in the same insurrection that brought down Shatuo and has been imprisoned for eight years, wearing the shaggy hair and beard of a hermit saint. When Wu frees Dee and makes him Imperial Commissioner in charge of the Phantom Flame mystery, he applies all his skills of deduction and flying footwork. This kick-ass CSI needs to be as wary as he is resourceful, because the other four, plus various warlords, monks and mythological creatures, have their own mortal agendas. And nobody wants Dee to survive his greatest case.
Tsui Hark has always been a swami of cinematic geometry: he can pack reams of exposition and sensation into a dozen pristinely composed shots that take only a few seconds of screen time. If you see the movie on DVD you’ll often want to scan backward to study certain scenes for the subtle pulses of their elegance and fury. The director’s trickster genius is shared by the main characters; each is supremely adept and understandably suspicious of the others, any one of whom could be the evil mastermind. Most of them are surely capable of stunts 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.
The mix of actors from the mainland (Li and Deng Chao) and Hong Kong in its glory days (Leung and the Laus) also proves a tasty concoction. The three Hong Kongers were all cuties in the ’80s; Andy Lau in particular enjoyed a prolonged movie adolescence as a Canto-pop pretty boy. But in the last decade, often working with crime-drama maven Johnnie To — and playing the Matt Damon role in the local hit Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed — Lau has matured into a steely gravity. His Dee, who trades in his hermit guise for the equally startling mustache and goatee worthy of a mincing courtier, is the one person here who may earn the designation of hero.
Packed with a magic talking deer, a red-robed river king and characters transformable by acupoints (including the worm-devourer Dr Donkey Wang, who before our eyes morphs from one Hong Kong comedy stalwart, Richard Ng, to another, Teddy Robin), Detective Dee fulfills Pei’s description of China’s Phantom Bazaar as “a spooky pandemonium.” But the movie is not just spectacle; it’s got a tender, ultimately tragic love story and enough deadly political scheming to fill a Gaddafi playbook. Indeed, in its narrative cunning, luscious production design and martial-arts balletics, Detective Dee is up there with the first great kung-fu art film, King Hu’s 1969 A Touch of Zen. We’d call it Crouching Tiger, Freakin’ Masterpiece.