The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Showbox Media Group 

Release date: June 27th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 122 min

Original language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Country of origin: China

Director: Tsui Hark
Writer: Chen Kuofu

Cast: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Chao Deng

Having recently reviewed Cold Weather (2010) with its interestingly off beat take on a Sherlock Holmes detective story, I was surprised to come across with a movie that yet again has its own take on the great detective so soon after. Life has its strange coincidences, but to be fair, the similarities between the two films are very limited as – unlike Cold Weather – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame stays much closer to the “whodunit” traditions while adding some Chinese martial arts extravaganza into the mix.

Detective Dee

The story of Detective Dee takes place during the time of the Tang Dynasty just prior to the inauguration of Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), the first and only female empress in the history of China. When a series of mysterious deaths of Chinese officials threaten to delay or even prevent the inauguration ceremony, the empress boldly decides to request the help of genius detective Di Renjie (Andy Lau), whom she herself had exiled for treason. Along with the empress’ beautiful bodyguard Jing’er (Li Bingbing) and the albino imperial guard Pei (Chao Deng), Di Renjie sets out to solve the unexplained deaths that first appear to be spontaneous human combustion.

Detective Dee takes a real historical event with real historical characters and goes on to use a fantastical plot with the freedom of a true storyteller.

Detective Dee

This type of narrative always teases my brain to try to separate truth from fiction, which is a reward in itself. And while the historical context is intriguing, the fantasy elements are not just there to be pretty, they are weaved into the story in a practical and useful way. The Empire State Building-sized Buddha statue in its final stages of construction is as impressive visually as its role during the film’s climax. Much like Sherlock Holmes (2009) – a film that I also enjoyed – Detective Dee was made in the spirit of modernizing the legendary detective by increasing the pace and adding action scenes while staying true to its traditions.

Detective Dee

The action choreography is created by Sammo Hung who is also responsible for Ip Man (2008) and its sequel. Due to the extensive use of wires in the fight scenes, many have compared the film to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but there is a much higher degree of realism in Detective Dee. The choreography while spectacular, it is done with subtlety and good taste without the slightest hint of pretentiousness.

The exiled detective, the empress’ secretive bodyguard and the arrogant and hot-blooded imperial guard reluctantly work together as a team to solve the mystery of the Phantom Flame. The relationship between the three protagonists is very dynamic and the empress Wu Zetian is played with great nobility by Carina Lau – she is a benevolent, almost divine leader we all want to save from dark and mysterious forces.


  • Interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind the Scenes (17.00)
  • Cine Asia promotional Clip (23.00)

Sherlock Holmes (2009), Cold Weather (2010) and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame all seem to say that the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is as inspiring and relevant as ever. Detective Dee is yet again an interesting and refreshing way to tell a very traditional story type, putting it into eastern cultural context with slick and modern presentation. If you like a detective who is always one step ahead of everyone else using formidable logic – and Kung Fu – it’s definitely worth watching.

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