Detective Dee – Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

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Detective Dee is in many ways one of the more approachable Chinese films you’re likely to come across, consisting of one part Indiana Jones, one part Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie vintage), one part Scooby-Doo – and all overlaid with the visual style and martial arts spectacle one would expect. There’s a genuine story and a mystery to unravel, and it’s just about followable (with some nice, near-CSI-style flashbacks at the various clue reveals.) However the unfamiliarity of the cultural and historical reference touchpoints makes it difficult for Western audiences to really ‘play along’ as you’re never sure what’s real and what is heightened reality or outright fantasy.

There’s a particular problem with characterisation which is very different from the standard Western way of handling such things, with characters switching from archetypical villains to sympathetic cohorts (and back again) to a degree that leaves nothing certain or reliable (both in character and in appearance) – which to us appears careless inattention but is actually just a different style of doing things. It means it covers up some genuinely meaningful switches ‘in plain sight’, but it’s still weird that a character can go from power crazed tyrant to honourable leader with little backstory to it. Only the eponymous Detective Dee has a consistent character and through story, and ironically that makes him a rather dull focal point in the story compared with the fascinating personalities around him, although there’s no doubting the strength and quality of Andy Lau’s performance.

If you can put aside these difficulties in translation, though, the film is overall a delight to watch – spectacularly so in Blu-ray high definition – and a continual treasure throughout, always fascinating and beautiful to view, even though there is a surfeit of blatant CGI from the start. The film isn’t remotely embarrassed by such evident artificiality though and almost revels in and celebrates it, and with such vivid life and gusto on the screen it’s hard not to be swept away by it, too, and just go with the flow.

If you can do that, you’ll surely enjoy the experience.

**** out of 5.

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