Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie Review: Detective Dee and Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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Another poor weekend movie choice for the big releases with last week having an animated 17 year old film converted to 3D taking the box office. This weekend didn’t look like any new releases were going to beat it. (update, yeah, Lion King 3D was the highest grossing movie for a second weekend) Back to the art house films I go although, my regular Regal theater is supposed to be cinema art house here in Honolulu, they haven’t shown art house films in a while. So I looked at Consolidated Theaters and one film leapt off the computer monitor at me. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame just has such an intriguing name I couldn’t pass it up.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame Movie Poster
The movie is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and some sensuality and ran just over two hours at 122 minutes. The whole time my eyes were attentive to what was happening on the screen. Take beautiful cinematography, add in high wire martial arts (like a Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon), set it in 690 AD for a period movie and lay that on top of a murder mystery and you have an engaging film. The fact you that you have to keep looking at the screen in order to read the subtitles helps keep you engaged too.

Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is soon to be coronated as the first female Emperor of China. While a giant Buddha statue for the coronation is being constructed two of her high level officials mysteriously and suddenly burn up. Some think it is divine intervention signaling that Wu should not be crowned. Others believe there is plot afoot not by the gods but by man to stop the ceremony. The best person to solve the mystery is Detective Dee (Andy Lau), a man who eight years earlier was sent to prison for opposing the empress’ raise to power. To help ensure the now released detective stays on the case, the empress assigns Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bing Bing) and Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) to both assist and watch over Dee.

The martial arts staging was enthralling to watch. Flips, climbs, dives, jumps, spins and back bends done with the assistance of wires are staged with deft choreography bringing the fight scenes to life. Include weaponry with swords, arrows, whips and a special mace and you have some edge of your seat kick butt altercations. With assassins running rampant to stop Dee, Jing’er and Pei from trying to solve the mystery and you never know when a fight to save their lives will break out. Being high on the cinematography scale scenes with falling white petals adds to the mood of the film.

Two items that I found took away from the experience slightly were the subtitles and the massive CGI shots. For the CGI they needed to be tweaked slightly. I can’t put my finger on why, but any of the scenes showing massive amounts of boats in the harbor just didn’t look quite right. I’m not sure if it was the coloring, the movement or shapes that my mind automatically jumped to “those aren’t real.” For the subtitles, there was a few times when there were large sentences on display and not enough time to read them; sometimes they just flashed too quickly. Being what they are, your eyes focused on the bottom of the screen preventing you from focusing in on the beautiful details in intricate designs, patterns and background action and absorbed them fully. This is one film that a dubbed version might actually make it better allowing you to watch with eyes wide open across the entire screen rather than just the lower third.

Even though Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was originally released in 2010 and received nominations for Best Film and Best Choreography while winning for Best Director and Best Costume Design at the 30th Hong Kong Film Awards, it has just now made its way to American shores. If you have a chance to see the film on the big screen, I think you’ll enjoy it.

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