The massive success of Wuxia films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) at the start of this century has reinvigorated the zeal of Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese productions towards epic martial arts themed movies. Blockbusters like Red Cliff by John Woo, and Warlord starring Andy Lau and Jet Li boasts of scale and ambition that rivals what the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters have to offer. Directed by the veteran Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark, the film was a huge commercial and critical success. It was nominated for an impressive 13 Hong Kong Film Awards, winning 6 including Best Director and Best Actress for Carina Lau. The film was also nominated for the Golden Lion Award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame stars Andy Lau as the eponymous mystery solving sleuth with superhuman martial-arts skills. The character is inspired by a real-life historical figure Di Renjie, who served under the first and only female emperor in China’s history, and his previous stint as a magistrate and judge formed the basis of the Judge Dee series of novels written by Robert van Gulik.
Mystery of Phantom Flame revolves around the mysterious deaths of a few top officials, caused by spontaneous internal combustion, as they work on the construction of a giant Buddha statue as part of the new Empresses' coronation ceremony. Detective Dee, serving time for treason for opposing the Empress during her rise to power, is called back to service and made in-charge of the investigation. He is aided in the investigation by the beautiful and skillful martial artist maid of the Emperor, Shangguan Jing’er, (Li Bingbing ; The Forbidden Kingdom), with a few secrets of her own. Also accompanying them is Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), an albino young hot-headed detective for whom no one's above suspicion. Together, the trio embark on an adventure that plays like a fantasy as well as an intriguing Sherlock Holmes style investigation, with the former often overwhelming the latter.
There's no denying the intent of Tsui Hark. There is incoherence in the narrative, but the intense and spectacular action sequences (courtesy Sammo Hung; who reigns supreme as the best martial arts choreographer in Hong Kong film industry), and the visually delightful grand and creative set pieces will make you forget the shortcomings. Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame is a pulsating ride full of adventure and fantasy, great martial- arts sequences and elements of whodunit that makes it a engrossing and thrilling experience.