This year, the Tribeca film festival offered up some interesting gems from the realm of Asian cinema, some officially signed off on by the gurus of moving images from Asia at Subway Cinema. I scheduled myself a 3- day line-up of the more outrageous offerings, and the following is a bit of a report on the proceedings.
Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame
This outstanding film directed by veteran Tsui Hark left me slack jawed, hairs standing on end, and otherwise amazed. Recently, my interest in Asian cinema has gravitated mainly towards Japanese and Korean productions, leaving most films from China on the out. This movie challenges that position considerably.
Tsui Hark’s recent films have not created the buzz they once did. For me, his older works were also a bit rough around the edges visually. Here he has delivered a seamless blend of fantasy, period piece historical drama, and hardboiled mystery in one enormously entertaining package. It has been a long time since I have found myself so disarmingly overjoyed with a big screen movie adventure based out of any country.
What impressed me most is that the story weaves a through and through mystery, complete with red herrings, hidden intentions, and hard earned clues that move the plot forward. The fantasy element doesn’t overwhelm other aspects of the story, nor is it ever used to give an easy out to inexplicable plot points.
The focus is on Di Renjie, a sleuth who is released from confinement to solve a series of mysterious murders that take place around the construction of a massive Buddha statue. Since these incidents threaten the proceedings of soon-to-be Empress Wu’s official inauguration, she reluctantly frees the skilled detective so that he can solve the case. The empress was also the one who had Dee imprisoned in the first place for acts of treason, and there you have a sense of the complicated nature of the relationships and motives affecting characters in the story.
Di Renjie is teamed up with the empress’ most trusted assistant (or “right hand woman” if you will), and one of her military’s lead investigators in a very volatile partnership. There is plenty of suspense and intrigue as the formidable trio faces unknown perils while each of them also tries to outwit and vet their suspicions of the other two members in their makeshift alliance.
It wouldn’t be a bona fide Chinese epic action movie if the protagonists weren’t multi-talented. So it almost goes without saying that they are all accomplished martial artists. As the pieces of the puzzle slide into place, there is plenty of stylistic action galore.
The point where fiction meets reality is its dealing with Empress Wu’s rise to power. While the details of course have been changed to include far more fantastical elements, there is a shared aspect of ruthlessness with which she is believed to have taken grasp of power.
Everything about the film from its panoramic scenes to its high stakes finale is on a big scale; the same can be said for the themes it deals with. Notions of revenge, loyalty, and putting the greater good ahead of personal feelings come into play as the story draws nearer to its conclusion.
I have noticed the term steampunk come up in promotions and reviews, and was curious if it actually did play a role in the movie at all. In fact, fans of this budding genre that embraces stylized depictions of real and imagined pre 20th century technology will likely thrill to the lovingly rendered details of the grand Buddha statue’s inner workings. Also of note is the weaponry employed by many of the characters. Rather than rely primarily on blades, they wield many technically engaging mechanisms that snap, spring, and whir into action.
The director was not on hand to talk about the film. This was a shame because, of the three entries I’ve seen so far, this is the one where the director would have received a standing ovation from me and likely the other members of the very enthusiastic packed audience. It’s likely, though, that Hark is still making the rounds in his native China, where the movie recently swept the Hong Kong film awards. Expect more Dee and more great things from Tsui Hark in the near future.