• Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo / Detective Dee and the mystery of the phantom flame (2010) - Diversifiedly solid but not impressive after all - 7/10 (12/10/12)

    Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo / Detective Dee and the mystery of the phantom flame

     

    Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo or Detective Dee and the mystery of the phantom flame is a Chinese fantasy movie that takes place during the Zhou Dynasty when the first and only Chinese empress Wu Zetian started her reign. The cold, cruel and somewhat megalomaniac woman that wants to rule on her own accord and who killed several potential enemies in the past is now menaced days before her crowning. After the mysterious death of two people during the construction of a giant Buddha statue in front of the emperor's residence, she asks the Chaplain, a sort of state preceptor who speaks through a magical deer, for help. He gives her the advice to recruit the banned Detective Dee who had openly accused the empress for having possibly killed her late husband and who was one of the leading persons in a growing revolution eight years ago. Even before Detective Dee can be contacted, a group of assassins tries to kill him and another prisoner but they ultimately fail. Intrigued by the strange murders and the will to make peace with his past, Detective Dee soon discovers that black magic seems to be the cause of the deaths. Accompanied by the empress' charming but mysterious attendant and an albinistic officer in the penal system, Detective Dee has to put the pieces of the puzzle together before the crowning of the empress takes place and soon discovers a well organized conspiracy with the goal to kill the empress.

    This movie has a historic background that is though not developed in a profound way. The film rather focuses on fantastic elements around black magic, a few mild suspension moments and a couple of artistic action choreographies done by some of the best experts of several outstanding Hongkong action movies of the late eighties and early nineties. This film though wastes a little bit of potential on here as it turns out to be too diversified to truly convince in any of the genres it touches and as it lacks of a few more developed cultural and historical bits and pieces that would make the final result more authentic.

    Apart of the action choreographies, a true highlight are definitely the buildings, costumes and masquerades in the movie that were created in a very precise and professional way as it often happens to be in contemporary Chinese movies. On the other side, the special effects are less impressive and often to artificially flavoured so that they destroy the movie's certain kind of magic a few times. That's where Hollywood is still slightly ahead of modern Asian cinema.

    While the story of this movie definitely has a few good points and a couple of small twists as well, there are still some negative factors. One never really gets to know why the two persons in the beginning of the movie really had to die instead of killing the empress in an unexpected way during her crowning. The movie also has a few anachronisms such as way too modern ships in the harbour and the diplomat in the beginning of the film whose identity and role remains strangely unresolved. These flaws are pardonable if you take this movie as a fictional film only.

    In the end, you get an entertaining fantasy movie with a solidly suspenseful story, well done choreographies and stunning costumes. The movie though has no truly innovating elements, surprising moments or touching scenes. It has without a doubt a certain kind of magic after all but it is sometimes too professionally done to touch the people. This movie is rather ordinary in comparison to what the gifted director Tsui Hark has done in the past but it's still one of the more entertaining Asian movies from 2010. After all, I guess I would only recommend this film to long time fans of Asian cinema as well as of stunning costumes and artistic choreographies. I would go for a loan instead of an immediate purchase as the film is surely entertaining but nothing outstanding enough to be a worthy addition to a film collection of an Asian cinema maniac.

     

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