Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

4 June

Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989

On this day in the 1989, one of the most recognisable images of recent decades flashed around the world as Type 59 tanks marched in single file through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, while facing them stood a lone figure – “Tank Man”.

Protest had been gathering pace since April, when students had first gathered to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer. The mourning developed into a call for political and economic reform, more accountability, freedom of expression and democratic rights, and at first the government tolerated the protests. By May the protest was becoming national and on 20 May Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader, decided to counter it with force, before the founding ceremony of the Tiananmen Democracy University could be held on 4 June. Martial law was declared and troops were mobilised, 300,000 of them focused on Beijing alone.

On 3 June state TV told residents to stay indoors as the troops moved in on Tiananmen Square from every direction. The army shot to kill, using expanding bullets, wherever they met with resistance, and when residents from apartment blocks tried to surround the tank convoy, the army opened fire on the apartment blocks. The killing infuriated city dwellers, who counter-attacked with whatever they had to hand. At the square, the students had decided on peaceful resistance. At 4am, the lights in the square went out and a loudspeaker announced that the square would be cleared. The lights came back on at 4.30am, the soldiers advanced up to a position 10 metres from the students. The first row of soldiers took up the prone position, their machine guns aimed at the students. Behind them was a row of soldiers with assault rifles. Behind them anti-riot police. And behind them the tanks. Many students decided to leave. Even so, among those who decided not to, many were injured and killed, and some were run over by tanks. The army even opened fire on the concerned parents of demonstrators who had gathered for news of their children. By 5 June it was, in most respects, over. “Tank Man” gave the world its image of Tiananmen, an image made possible by the fact that he was a single man; so many of the other protestors had been dispersed.

Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010, dir: Tsui Hark)

Films from China used in the main to mean films from Hong Kong – kung fu, gritty urban cop thrillers, action, chaos, fun. Then in 1997 the British gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese and films out of China started to mean something different. By and large they became fixated on events in the distant past, with storylines that reinforced continuity, the importance of strong leadership, the “Three Kingdoms” period of chaotic disunity in the 3rd century AD being a particular favourite.

This Detective Dee film has all the hallmarks. That doesn’t make it a bad film. In fact it’s a good one, stuffed with oddity – talking animals, great martial arts sequences, clockwork fighting machines that fly, magical logs that sail into the air, supernatural beings, people who burst into flames, and that’s just the first few minutes. It also has some good actors in it. For instance Andy Lau, as the exiled detective in AD689 brought back from purdah to solve an unsolvable crime, the mysterious deaths of two court officials which threaten to prevent the inauguration of Empress Wu (Carina Lau).

The story proceeds by moving from one super-elaborate set-up to the next: it’s daytime, night-time, Dee is in a forest, a palace, the town, the country, each location an abundance of props, costumes and characters as he tries to work out, using deduction, how the men met their end. It’s a highly elaborate Agatha Christie story, in essence, with all the silk and CG that Tsui Hark can muster, sometimes to the film’s detriment.

Buried beneath all the explosion, mystery and wonder is a political message – behold the empress, chosen by god, in covenant with the people, a tough but fair ruler, one who can learn, who can even respect its dissidents (of which Detective Dee is one). Tsui Hark, once the wunderkind of Hong Kong who seems to have found a new lease of life with this film, beats this message, the plot, the effects, the huge sets, the talking animals, the madness and outlandish characters (I didn’t mention the albino official? the one-armed construction supervisor?) into something resembling a whole. And while any film that starts with the spontaneous combustion of two people is obviously throwing down the gauntlet – to itself if no one else – it’s watching Tsui rise to that challenge that makes this example of batshit wuxia so enjoyable to watch.

Why Watch?

  • The always watchable Andy Lau
  • Sammo Hung’s wire-assisted fight scenes
  • The breakneck pace
  • The costumes and production design

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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