Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Dialogue most foul

It was exposition that killed 'Detective Dee,' my dear Watson

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Indomina Releasing
Director: Hark Tsui
Screenplay: Kuo-fu Chen
Starring: Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai and Chao Deng
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 59 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame would be a lot of fun if it weren't so damn boring. The title itself sounds like it could be the name of the next Indiana Jones movie. The plot involves conspiracy, sedition, political intrigue, underground revolutionaries, assassins, and human beings spontaneously bursting into flames.

Yes, that sounds like a good time. And it might have been, had its characters not spent most of their time explaining the plot, then re-explaining it, then arguing about it, then speculating on it, then re-explaining it for a third time. And suddenly a film that should have been effortlessly enjoyable instead becomes a persistent distraction to itself, bogged down in relentlessly tedious exposition.

Which isn't to say it doesn't have its moments - it does. But that only makes everything else all the more disappointing. You keep thinking It might pick up some momentum if only it would stop yapping for a few minutes.

There are certain movies, and certain times in movies, where exposition is (and must be) a substantive part of the proceedings. I suppose you could make that argument in this case, but there is a limit, and Detective Dee far surpasses it. One character explaining his dastardly deeds to another in full detail (in the process revealing the loophole that will allow his plans to be thwarted) rarely makes for effective cinema.

The curious thing is, the set-up for the film's many setpieces is sometimes great. It's the payoff that's disappointing, as the characters quack-quack-quack their way through needless dialogue instead of just getting on with it.

The best scene of dialogue - and probably the funniest scene in the film - involves two characters trying to hide what they're saying from a third character. They force him to read something - as loudly as possible - as they talk in secret, unaware that a fourth character is attempting to eavesdrop.

It's a perfectly staged sequence, but for so much of the rest of the movie, I found myself wishing I were in the position of that third character - blissfully unaware of the tedium taking place just a few yards away. If only something could've drowned out 50 percent of the film's dialogue, I would have been a much happier viewer.

Detective Dee takes place in the late 7th Century during the Tang Dynasty in the days leading up to the coronation of the Empress, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau). She first rose to power eight years previously, and imprisoned those who spoke out against her - including the titular detective (Andy Lau).

But strange things are afoot, what with the spontaneous combustion and all, so the Empress enlists Dee's help to get to the bottom of the mystery. But, Dee being a natural adversary, the Empress can't simply leave him to his own devices, so she has her personal assistant Shangguan (Bingbing Li) - not only a loyal servant but a brilliant martial artist - accompany Dee throughout the investigation. To keep an eye on him.

The film's great potential shows itself during a fantastic sequence early in Dee and Shangguan's uneasy partnership. We're not sure whether it's meant to be a seduction scene, an assassination scene, an interrogation scene, or all three at once. The sequence only gets more complicated and more entertaining - and it seemed to me the film had finally found its rhythm and its tone.

Alas, its unevenness persisted. Part of that has to do with its seeming discomfort with the comedic elements of the plot. It never seems to get a grasp on when it's supposed to be funny, or even whether it wants to be funny at all.

Films like this - blending wuxia, comedy, pulp mystery and other elements - tend to have a certain M.O. They either make for magnificent spectacle, or muddled sensory overload. The failure of Detective Dee is unusual in that it's not overwhelming, or too over-the-top, or too convoluted. It's not that there's too much - in fact, there's too little. And it's not that it's too wild and chaotic - on the contrary, it's far too controlled (read: talky) for its own good.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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