Review: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame


This is an odd movie. I came to it knowing Detective/Judge Dee from Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (and his translated Dee Gong An), and I confess I was expecting less wuxia and more, er, detecting?

The story is set in Tang China, in the days just before the coronation of Empress Wu (the only woman in China who ruled as Empress in her own right, and not as a consort or dowager). Wu is a ruhtless woman who rose to power with the magical help of the Chaplain Lu Li (a spirit who takes on both human and deer form, and helped her clean the court of those nobles and officials which opposed her); for her own coronation, she has commissioned a huge statue of the Buddha to be completed in time for the ceremonies. All is going according to plan–except that court officials involved with the Buddha’s construction spontaneously start catching fire. Empress Wu, frightened by this plot against her, calls back Detective Dee–a respected judge who spoke against her and was imprisoned for state treason.

Let’s start with the good points: the cast. Tsui Hark has got together the cream of the cream of Hong Kong cinema, and the cast list is a fan’s wet dream. The setting is also (for the most part) marvelous, bringing to life Luoyang in its heyday, as well as more exotic locations such as the Phantom Mart, a city beneath the city, and a weird monastery that might or might not be the theater for black magic… The set pieces are also very good: the actions scenes are fantastically choregraphed (and this from someone who doesn’t care much for action).

The bad… Remember that summary? That’s pretty much the extent of the plot. Well, OK, there’s slightly more, but overall it’s the most disappointing bit of the movie: for all its cool ideas and cool characters (and awesome actors), it does end up feeling a little light. All the set pieces seem to be put there mostly to keep the spectators from getting bored: as soon as the action lags a bit, we get ninjas and martial arts randomly thrown in. Also, I did expect that it wasn’t going to make sense in the scientific fashion of the world (ie, the explanation for the murders was probably not going to hold water by Western forensic standards), but internal coherence would have been nice. For instance, an explanation why and how the bad guys could hire so many ninjas–and other fine points of the plot such as the Chaplain’s role in events…

Overall, it’s a decent movie for an evening; but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again, and it did leave me feeling a little disappointed. A bit like Curse of the Golden Flower (which also had the ninjas randomly thrown in). As historical wuxia movies go, I much preferred Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; as far as purely historical movies go, Red Cliffs (which takes liberties with Three Kingdoms, but still).

Also, I’m a history geek, and I kept complaining about “but, but, Luoyang doesn’t have a sea with three-masted ships, it’s by a river!”, and “why does the giant Buddha look like Guanyin before Guanyin actually existed?” This is why you shouldn’t watch a movie with me…
(I might, of course, be wrong about all of this–being hampered by my inability to understand Chinese)


  1. Awwwe, too bad! I was really hoping it would be fantastic. I’m curious as to if you got the regular DVD or the Director’s cut? Not that it makes a ton of difference, but….

  2. Laura, I got the regular DVD (not sure it makes a ton of difference, but maybe the Director’s cut actually makes more sense…)

  3. Hmmm. I’ll try the Director’s cut, then, if I can find it for cheap. Maybe, just maybe, it will be better! XD

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