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Featured DVD / Blu-ray Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

December 12th, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame opened with a per theater average of $17,533 in three theaters, which is very good, especially for a September release. However, it wasn't able to maintain this average the following week and it quickly expanded beyond what its word-of-mouth could handle. This is not a positive sign. Is the film flawed and that's what prevented it finding a larger audience. Or is it a genre film with too small a target audience? Does it deserve to perform better on the home market?

The Movie

The film takes place in the year 689 in China. A new emperor is about to be crowned, or to be more specific, a new empress. Wu Zetian is set to become the first empress in China, something that does not sit well with everyone in the royal court. Still, she's moving ahead with the inauguration ceremony and at the center will be a huge statue of Buddha, if it is completed on time. Master Jia Yi, the man in charge of the construction, is showing around a visiting dignitary when one of the workers, Shatuo Zhong, says the men are worried about safety after a couple of protective amulets were removed from the statue. Master Jia is puzzled, he thought they were replaced already and tells the man to put them back at once. However, almost immediately after giving the order, he starts to feel faint and shortly after that, he bursts into flames.

Master Xue and his subordinate Pei Donglai are sent to investigate. Master Xue thinks he was poisoned with yellow phosphorus, which is plentiful, as it is used to smelt the metal needed for the giant statue. Pei Donglai thinks there's more to the case than that. He interrogates Shatuo Zhong and reveals he was punished by the Empress as a traitor in the past, making him a prime suspect for this crime, he claims it was divine retribution for removing the amulets in the first place. Master Xue thinks this superstition is folly and rips down more amulets daring the divine to strike him down. But he is unharmed... till the next scene.

With two government officials bursting into flames, Wu Zetian has taken drastic measures, including banning all flames from the palace. She receives more dire warnings when the Imperial Chaplain, Magic Deer, shows up. (At first I thought the Imperial Chaplain was named Magic Deer, but the Empress is visited by an actual talking deer. I think I know why the film struggled at the box office. A magic talking deer might be too much for the viewer to handle. It's a nuking the fridge moment; either you accept this is part of the world the movie takes place in or you won't enjoy the rest of the film.) Magic Deer tells the empress that Venus has been imprisoned for eight years and that as long as Venus is locked up, chaos will reign. After some more cryptic clues, Wu Zetain and Shangguan Jing'er conclude he must be referring to Detective Dee. Eight years ago he opposed the Empress's rise in power and was imprisoned as a result. The Empress sends Shangguan Jing'er to find out if Detective Dee is dead or alive.

She arrives just in time to help Detective Dee and another, much older prisoner, fight off a group of assassins. When Shangguan Jing'er returns to Empress Wu Zetian with Detective Dee, the Detective is given his old rank and put in charge of the investigation. This upsets a lot of people, including Shangguan Jing'er and Pei Donglai, but during the course of his investigation, he even briefly reunites with Shatuo Zhong, who gives him an important clue. But even with all of this help, it might be impossible to solve this case.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a combination period piece / political intrigue with the Wuxia martial arts mysticism of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's an impressive combination of suspense and action and the end result is an epic film that should please fans of either genre. Sammo Hung directed the film's many action scenes, and his expertise is on display. Also, the actors are given very interesting characters to play and can bring them to life with a lot of charisma. Finally, it's just a beautiful film to look at, with the palatial splendor of seventh century China on display.

There are a few issues. Firstly, as I hinted at previously, there are a lot of implausible events that happen in the movie. The number of surprise twists are a bit much at times. Yes, granted the turns and twists are a great part of the movie, but at times it feels like the filmmakers were just trying to make a confusing movie rather than an entertaining movie. Secondly, the film was shot for $20 million, which is a lot for a Chinese film, but just a fraction of the price of a Hollywood blockbuster. Because of this, some of the special effects were a little dodgy. I should emphasize, that these are both minor complaints and in no way prevent me from enthusiastically recommending the movie.

The Extras

Extras on the DVD include four short making of featurettes on the overall film, the look of the movie, the fighting and the special effects. In total, it's less than 20 minutes, which is not a lot, but on par with many foreign language releases.

The Blu-ray has no additional extras, but it looks and sounds great. It was a digital production, so it should come as no surprise that it looks great on high definition. The level of detail is great, it's a colorful movie and the colors pop, the blacks are deep, there are no problems with compression issues, etc. The audio is strong with clear dialogue, good ambient sounds and plenty of directional effect. Plus, it only costs 25% more than the DVD. Good value for the money.

The Verdict

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame deserves to be seen by more people. Even if you are not normally a fan of martial arts movies, but enjoy murder mysteries like Sherlock Holmes, for instance, you should really enjoy this film. Of course, if you are a fan of martial arts movies, this is a must see. There are not a lot of extras on the DVD or the Blu-ray, but the movie itself has more than enough replay value that it still a contender for Pick of the Week.

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Filed under: Video Review, Di Renjie