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
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
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.