“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (“Di Renjie”). We missed this Chinese adventure film in its short local run, and were glad to catch up on it on video. Long ago, I enjoyed Walter Van Gulik Clark’s translation of Dee Goon An (“Judge Dee At Work”) and his other novels based on the character of the famous Chinese investigator and jurist.
As expected, although the movie is rather specifically dated in 690 CE, the year in which Wu Zetian declared herself “Empress Regnant”, is distinctly in the borderlands of “mythic China,” with its “wire fu,” mystical effects, and weird science, including acupuncture shape-shifting, giant statues, and alchemical poisons.
The Empress suspects that strange deaths of senior officials due to spontaneous combustion are intended to undermine the legitimacy of her becoming ruler de jure, as well as de facto. “Detective Dee” had been sentenced to prison twelve years earlier for opposing her, but she frees Dee in the expectation that any finding of his that exonerates her of the killings would be generally accepted.
This version of Dee is of course a master of gung-fu, especially when armed with the mystical weapon, the “Mace of Dragon Training.” This is a departure from the classical Dee, who, although he practiced with the straight sword, or “jian”, seldom fought, and left the “hands on” work to his henchmen, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan, none of whom were “boxers”, which was considered a rare and dangerous ability when encountered. Like most classical detective stories, the element of the supernatural was always dispelled, with Dee finding a rational explanation for seemingly eerie happenings.
The plot, given its magical elements, is a fairly good mystery/political intrigue thriller, and had me guessing as to the ultimate villain until the story got there by process of elimination.
Andy Lau as Dee is clever and stalwart as the plot requires, but he is surrounded by much more interesting characters: the albino investigator, Pei Donglai (Chao Deng); Bingbing Li as the Empress’ whip-wielding henchwoman; the Empress herself (Carina Lau); and Richard Ng/Teddy Robin Kwan as Doctor Wang Lu. Pretty much all of these characters distrust and suspect one another, so it’s a rather fraught co-operation.
Interesting and fun.
We were interested by the new film version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” by Julie Taymor, starring Helen Mirren as “Prospera,” a female version of the play’s protagonist. Other than that change, the play text and action is preserved intact as far as I could recall. The film version is very pretty, shot largely on location in Hawaii, and has some decent special effects that enhance the magical transformations of Ariel (Ben Whishaw).
Unfortunately, it seemed to me that pans of the landscape and the effects only slowed down the action, so that the piece seemed slow and low-keyed compared with recent theatrical productions I have seen. Mirren is the reason to see the film. She makes a very good sorceress, and as a wronged woman seeking to see her daughter’s future secured, she has some good edge in the role. (Although, frankly, with her strong features and trademark short haircut, she could just as easily have played the role as written as an androgynous man, and I don’t think anyone would have quibbled.)
She’s well supported by Whitlaw, Felicity Jones as Miranda, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, and a crew of distinguished actors as the King of Naples and the Duke of Milan and their followers.
Worth seeing, but there are other as good filmic adaptations out there. I have an urge to go back and review the phantasmagorical “Prospero’s Books” some time.
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