Saturday, May 25, 2013

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (live action movie), via Netflix

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a mix of historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and action. It's a co-production between China and Hong Kong, and Netflix has it in Mandarin, with English subtitles.


This movie is set in 689 A.D., not long before Empress Wu is to be named the first female Emperor of China. The Empress is having a giant Buddha statue built that must be finished before her coronation. Everyone is thrown into turmoil when the man in charge of construction spontaneously bursts into flames while giving a tour of the Buddha statue. When a couple investigators arrive, one of the construction workers claims that the guy died because he dared to move some of the protective amulets. The investigators scoff at this, and one of them even pulls some of the amulets down. No immediate harm comes to him, which seems to prove the construction workers' fears wrong...until he bursts into flames while riding towards the Empress.

The Empress has Detective Dee, who was imprisoned for opposing her rule, released on the condition that he investigate these mysterious deaths and stop whoever is responsible. Jing'er, the Empress' loyal assistant, is assigned to both help and spy on Dee. Donglai, the remaining original investigator, joins the group. Somehow, Detective Dee has to uncover the truth while navigating a web of treachery and secrets.


I had seen this movie in Walmart a few times but resisted buying it because, with my luck, it would probably be terrible. Then it appeared in the Netflix catalog, and I figured “why not?”

This movie is crazy-awesome, by which I mean I enjoyed it but recognize that it's not for everyone. Here's a mini rundown of some of the things you'll find in it:
  • A magic deer that can speak (not quite accurate, but still)
  • Several people spontaneously bursting into flames
  • The beginnings of angry sex, interrupted by a rain of arrows
  • Government officials who can kick butt
  • A blind old man who can kick butt, via verbal instructions from Detective Dee
  • People who can change their appearance by means of pins stuck into their necks
  • A fight involving Detective Dee and a bunch of badass deer
  • Detective Dee's mace, which can help him find a weapon's weak spot and break it at that point
  • A battle puppet
And that's just some of the crazy-awesome. I was iffy about the movie at first, especially when the magic deer entered the scene, but at some point it won me over. I wanted to know who was orchestrating the murders and how the murders were being committed (and would the explanation be mystical, scientific, or some mix of the two?). And I wanted to see the fights, which were fast-paced, over-the-top, and sometimes just plain crazy (Detective Dee fought deer).

Considering the pacing and all the action, there wasn't much room for more than basic characterization, but I was okay with that. Jing'er was incredibly loyal to the Empress (due to the Empress saving her life at some point in the past – the details were never given), beautiful, and very talented with a whip. Donglai, who I assumed was an albino, was also a talented fighter, could jump around like a monkey, and was very intense and annoyed by Jing'er's “I'm better than you and more favored by the Empress” attitude. Detective Dee was the cool head of the bunch – he saw through everyone's scheming and kept to his task, investigating the mystery of the spontaneous combustions, as much as possible. He didn't flinch, and sometimes even laughed, when met with open hostility.

I thought I had guessed who the murderer was within the first 20 minutes of the movie. I turned out to be wrong, which was a nice surprise. What was also a surprise was all the deaths. In some ways, it's a good thing that the action and story got more attention than the characters, because it didn't pay to get too attached to people. I actually gasped aloud when one character accidentally set off a trap that delivered a mortal wound. I was a little more prepared when another prominent character burst into flames, but it was still shocking. I was honestly unsure whether Detective Dee would survive the movie or not.

I not only had fun with the story and mix of characters, I also enjoyed the movie's looks. The scenery was done on a grand scale: nice overhead shots of the city, and an amazing Buddha statue that stood above everything. The Empress had amazing costumes and hair. Especially hair. That hair was awe-inspiring. Some of the movie's special effects could have been better (particularly the spontaneous combustion and the deer fight), but I've also seen worse, and the scenes near the end involving the Buddha statue were, to my eyes, pretty impressive.

All in all, I'm glad I watched this movie. It took a bit to grow on me, but, once it won me over, I was glued to the screen, wondering what would happen, whether Detective Dee would survive, and how things would go with the Empress once everything was all over.

To be honest, I need to do a lot more movie-watching to come up with a decent watch-alikes list - my experience with movies of this type is very, very limited.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:

  • House of Flying Daggers (live action movie) - I found this while searching for slick-looking wuxia films. I haven't seen it yet, but, from what I've read, you can expect action and romance.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - This series is what I thought of when I tried to come up with something that combined fight scenes, occasional craziness, and a main character who is concerned with justice. I've written about the first season of the anime.
  • Sherlock Holmes (live action movie) - Yes, I know, this is not my best watch-alikes list. I thought of this movie (the version with Robert Downey Jr.) when I tried to come up with something that starred a detective who was intelligent and who could kick butt.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (live action movie) - More wuxia, but very different from Detective Dee in overall feel and, as I recall, not a mystery. I remember enjoying the battles and scenery and feeling crushed by the tragic ending.

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