Last week saw the premiere of The Thing, a prequel of the ’80s John Carpenter classic film masquerading as a remake (or is it the other way around?). I had to do a lot of debating about whether or not I wanted to see that film, until I read this review. “This movie is actually The Thing,” wrote Nick Nunziata. “It’s been sent from beyond to serve as an impostor to gain entrance.” As a moviegoer, that statement convinced me that this film wouldn’t be worth watching. As a reviewer, I won’t even bother trying to come up with a statement to top that.
Flash forward to a week later, when Paranormal Activity 3 saw release. Again, this is one I had to really think about spending time and money on. On the one hand, I loved how Paranormal Activity 2 opened up the scope of this franchise. Not only did it give the demon a possible motivation for possession and kidnapping, but it also gave the franchise a protagonist who could continue on, learn more, and pass her findings on to the audience. This franchise seemed ready for a huge leap forward. But instead, the filmmakers decided to go back into the childhoods of Katie and Kristi Featherston, which was ground already well-trod by the previous two movies. I know this movie’s been getting positive reviews and I reserve the right to change my mind later, but I just can’t support the franchise taking this direction.
Unfortunately, this weekend in movies doesn’t offer much else. I’ve already covered pretty much everything else that’s noteworthy, and there’s no way I’m going to see The Three Musketeers or Johnny English Reborn. But luckily, weekends like these are what arthouses were made for.
Nestled among the listings at the Fox Tower, I found a few showings for this little movie. Paranormal thrills and scares, on top of a mystery and a ton of great action? Looks like we have a winner!
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame begins in ancient China, with the imminent coronation of the country’s first and only female emperor. To celebrate the event, an enormous statue of the Buddha is being built in the royal courtyard. But just before the monument’s completion — and shortly before the coronation — two high-ranking government officials visit the statue and spontaneously combust shortly after.
The Empress suspects foul play, so she looks to the royal chaplain for advice. Through one of his magical talking deer (I swear there’s a rational explanation later on, so just go with it), the chaplain recommends putting the former Detective Dee (Andy Lau) in charge of the investigation. The only slight problem is that Dee helped lead an open rebellion against the government eight years ago and has been held in a maximum-security prison ever since.
Fun fact: There actually was a celebrated police officer named Di Renjie who lived and served in the Tang dynasty. Though the hero is real, it should go without saying that this film was not based on a true story.
Anyway, because Dee has a history of treason and because the Empress is slightly a bitch, they don’t exactly have much reason to trust each other. As such, the Empress assigns her right-hand woman — Shangguan Jing’er, played by Bingbing Li — to serve as the Watson to Dee’s Sherlock. Naturally, Jing’er also turns into the film’s resident love interest and secretive femme fatale. And speaking of Sherlock analogies, the role of Lestrade is filled by Pei Donglai (Chao Deng), an albino (again, just go with it) who recently came to prominence in the Empress’ Supreme Court.
These three characters — Dee, Jing’er, and Donglai — are our primary cast of characters in this movie. They’re all very smart, they all have reasons not to trust each other completely, and they all kick ass.
The action in this movie stands in open defiance of physics and anatomy in ways that may look familiar to anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Additionally — much like the Green Destiny — Dee wields a mace that carries badass magic without any explanation of where it comes from or how it works. On the other hand, this movie features far fewer people who are inexplicably able to fly. However, it does feature an assassin who can split into three and a fighter who can break swords in such a way that the broken pieces fly off and kill entire hordes of enemies.
So yeah, it’s like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If the filmmakers turned up the crazy and yanked off the knob.
Though the central mystery is very intricate and the plot is loaded with twists and turns, there’s no denying that this movie’s primary attraction is in how delightfully bonkers it is. This film takes place in a very heightened China, in which such things as shapeshifting, pressure points, spontaneous combustion, and — again — sentient talking deer are considered at least remotely plausible. This film demands a lot in the way of suspending disbelief, but it’s good enough to let you know that up front. This also works to the film’s advantage, because seeing characters revive from what should be mortal wounds is made a much easier pill to swallow.
Part of what makes suspending disbelief so easy is in the sterling production design. The scale of this movie is enormous, and all the sets and costumes are beautifully made. The effects are also exceptional. That’s not to say that they’re perfect, just that they’re only flawed when they need to be. For example, there’s a scene in which Dee is being attacked by deer and has to attack in kind. The CGI bucks look just good enough to be barely convincing, but bad enough to let the audience implicitly know that no actual animals are being harmed.
And that sequence brings me to the other reason why suspending disbelief is so easy: This movie is fun! The characters are all very well-written, with solid development and a whole lotta wit to go around. The fight scenes are amazing to watch (though a touch incomprehensible at times), and very inventive. In fact, the whole movie is loaded to the brim with creativity.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is an exercise in suspending disbelief, and all the various plot twists demand a great deal of attention on the audience’s part. Still, I found it to be an all-around well-made film and a total blast to watch. I definitely recommend giving it a look, should you be so lucky to have a chance at doing so.