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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Starring: Chao Deng, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Carina Lau
Director: Hark Tsui
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated: PG-13
$19.99 DVD

This martial arts film is based on historical events during the Tang Dynasty, when the Emperor’s widow, the lady Wu, was poised to become Empress of China in spite of opposition from numerous officials and lords who preferred patriarchal arrangements. In the seven years of her regency, Wu has had to deal with rebellions, plagues, droughts and famines, but China has flourished under her supervision, and women are certainly getting more promotions than they used to.

Wu has commissioned a magnificent stature of Buddha – looking distinctly feminine – to be built facing the palace; it is supposed to be ready in time for her coronation ceremony. But then, not one but two inspectors burst into flames and die horribly, burning from the inside out. (Great special effects here).

A sacred oracle, a stag with markings on his forehead like the guardian stag in Princess Mononoke, appears at the palace and announces that only Detective Dee can solve the mystery and save the empire from chaos. So Detective Dee, who has been out of favor ever since he opposed Wu’s regency, is sent for. Wu sends none other than her court favorite, Jing’r, a formidable, whip-wielding warrior in her own right, to attend and assist Dee ’s investigation.

But first Dee must survive an assassination attempt that strikes even before Jing’r arrives to order his release from prison.

From then on, officials and princes are either trying to suborn Dee to their rebellions or kill him outright. Dee is suspicious of almost everyone, including the albino warrior-detective who was initially sent to investigate, and who clearly resents being trumped. Gradually he uncovers clues and inconsistences, and traces the source of the spontaneous combustion to fire beetles which feed on phosphorus. But who is deploying them, how, and why?

The martial arts is in the magical style, with great leaps, intricate balancing acts, hand strikes that send pillars of wood shooting through air and water, and blocks that deflect those pillars as easily as if they were mere dowels. If you liked the archers’ attack in Hero, you are in for a similar treat here. The onslaughts of black arrows are not quite as sustained as in that famous scene, but some of these bows fire triple shots, and these arrows are poisoned with more of that stuff which turns you into a toasted marshmallow.

The graphics throughout the film made me wish I were seeing this in a theatre, the better to appreciate scenes of the towering Buddha and the work of its construction, several striking views of the great port filled with shipping, and later on, a sunken city that has become a phantom market. This film probably had a huge release in China . Here we have to find it on DVD, but it is still first-rate entertainment.

Interestingly enough, there is a connection between this film and the book, Demi-Monde: Winter, reviewed elsewhere this month, as both feature a historical personage, the Empress Wu. Strongly recommended. ~ Chris R. Paige

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