There are many spectacularly beautiful movies made in China. Movies so original in the color palette and the scenic design, so vast in the size of the canvas, and brilliantly balletic in the action sequences, that the uniqueness of the story is almost lost behind the beauty of the image.
Most of the films I am familiar with were directed by Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero). One of my favorite directors of all time, Kar Wai Wong, who directed the quiet, graceful, elegantly human In the Mood For Love is also Chinese, directing from Hong Kong.
Detective Dee is a folk hero to the Chinese and well known in the West as Judge Dee in a series of detective novels by Robert Van Gulik. That connection to the West is both the key to appreciating the film, as well as it’s major flaw.
The more drawn in you become the more you realize that this story-telling style is familiar, even hackneyed in some ways. It looks beautiful, but not ecstatically beautiful. The dialogue, when read in the subtitles, has the slightly high-minded sound you would expect from a film by Zhang, until one of the characters says something along the lines of, “That’s a load of crap.” It is surprising enough to be funny the first time and even when you realize that tipping over into a crass vernacular occasionally is an integral part of the style, it still works.
When Dee shows up and the detective work begins, the film begins to take on the rhythms of one of the forensic police dramas that have sprouted like weeds in the world of American television. It also made me think that my knee-jerk reaction to the title and it’s Charlie Chan-ness was more accurate than I had thought.
As stylish and provocative as the film is, it is ultimately disappointing because it is not an homage to American films, it is not a reinvention of the classic Hollywood detective film from a Chinese perspective, it is merely dependent on those films for it’s ideas. As original as some of the fight sequences are, they are there merely as fight sequences and do not propel, nor are they propelled by, the story. (It is kind of like the way action sequences are the only reason for watching a Michael Mann film.) Story means nothing and character is close behind.
The special effects, especially when the Phantom Flame engulfs people, look very cheap and unconvincing. For a moment I thought that perhaps there was more kitsch here than I initially realized, and that Tsui was mimicking the cheap and tacky effects of ’70s films from the Roger Corman factory, but he’s not. He is just doing the best he can, and in most respects, it’s not good enough. As T.S. Eliot said, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” This is borrowing and sometimes it’s like leaning over the table and just taking the whole pork chop off your brother’s plate without asking.
Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame opens this Friday, Oct. 21, at the Oriental Theatre on Farwell.