Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Dee-lightful Detective Popcorn Fare

Spontaneous human combustion and a talking deer in a Chinese movie? Red Dot Diva nods: You read it right.

This brand of quirky-fun mix of supernatural-fantasy-and-martial arts (wuxia 武侠) entertainment can only be successfully pulled off by famed HK director Tsui Hark 徐克). And more so with updated CGI effects, in his latest movie "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame". Sounds like an Oriental Harry Potter book title, no? ;)

"Detective Dee" or Di Renjie is a well-known character and magistrate in Chinese history and is also featured in a set of fictional novels by - strangely enough - a Dutch diplomat named Robert van Gulik. In addition, Dee has been fictionalized in a couple of Chinese TV drama series. Dee is usually portrayed as a much older man. However, Red Dot Diva suspects that to make the new movie more "current-sexy", Tsui Hark has decided to hire dashing Andy Lau (刘德华) to take the lead role. The movie was shown in the recent Venice Film Festival 2010 and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion Award.

"Detective Dee" begins with a show of grandeur as it is set in the flourishing Tang Dynasty just before the coronation of the only Empress Regnant in China - Wu Zetian (武则天). (Red Dot Diva urges you to Google her. She is a indeed a real historical figure. And here's a Big Woohoooo for Woman Power!!) The Empress-to-be had commissioned the construction of a giant Buddha statue. Just before her coronation date, a couple of court officials burst into flames in public view and it seems that no one is capable enough to solve the mystery other than magistrate Dee.

Unfortunately, Dee has rebelled against Wu in the past and has been sentenced to a high-security prison doing hard labour. Wu sends her favourite warrior Lady Shangguan Jing’er with an official pardon to Dee so that he can start with the investigation.

What then ensues is a Holmes-que foray into ancient Chinese forensics, nervous superstitions about such inauspicious events occuring near the coronation, various assassination attempts on Dee, the usual court politicking and intrigue (especially about a woman coming into power in a very patriarchal society) and typical detective work. A mystery is not a mystery without 'red herrings' and there were times when one was not quite sure who was really on Dee's side during the investigation.

Tsui Hark - well-known for his cult favourite movies - "Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain" and the "Once Upon A Time In China" series (starring Jet Li 李连杰) built layers of the Dee story as intricate as the many colourful layers in an Empress' royal robes. The script is pretty tight peppered with suitably light moments, and Andy Lau, as the lead, manages to pull the various scenes together in a credible manner.

Red Dot Diva especially thought Carina Lau's (刘嘉玲) take on Wu Zetian was skilfully nuanced. She put on a good act regarding a woman of power who could be cruel and practical but still has heart. Li Bingbing (李冰冰) as Lady Jing'er on the other hand, tended to be rather one-note in her portrayal. But she still kicked-ass in her action scenes. What Red Dot Diva appreciated was that the two main female characters were no mere "pretty flower vases". They both showed their feminine powers in their own ways.

The CGI used in the film wasn't too cheesy as Red Dot Diva dreaded. Some shots, like those of the ancient Tang city, did look good. Others, like in the scenes where the victims burnt up horribly into ashes, Red Dot Diva acknowledged that the effects were a tad too morbidly indulgent.

There were moments Red Dot Diva felt that the CGI and slow-motion camera scenes seemed to overwhelm the martial arts work by Sammo Hung (洪金宝). Sammo's usually snappy acrobatic choreography seemed a little off and out of place in some scenes. But it could also be that Tsui Hark was being a bit more restrained with the eye-popping high-wire stunt work as a trade-off for better story-telling. The martial arts choreography was still very good though, particularly the climax which took place inside the Buddha statue.

Red Dot Diva round-house kicks a Red Dot on "Detective Dee". It is a thrilling Asian whodunit that combines fantasy, nimble martial arts and deductive smarts during an era before the word "Sherlock" even existed.

One will not feel bored watching this (unless one is the kind who can only absorb fare like "Dragonball: Evolution"  *snort*). A fun visual riot and an enjoyable popcorn offering.

PS: Red Dot Diva feels sorry for those who claim they can't deal with subtitles. You're missing out on expanding one's visual world and mind to a lot of interesting foreign fare!

Enjoy the trailer anyway ;)

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