Tsui Hark and the Mystery of Where His Form Went ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tsui Hark and the Mystery of Where His Form Went

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
My rating:

Y'wanna know what's my all-time favourite Hong Kong movie? Peking Opera Blues, man. Directed by Tsui Hark, who is a justifiable legend of Hong Kong cinema. Every great Hong Kong film of the past 30 years has been influenced by him - but his heyday was a good decade-and-a-half ago. (Although to be fair, so was the HK film industry's.) He has returned from his short but embarassing sojourn in Hollywood making crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, but his films of the last few years have been hit-and-miss - and now he is part of that dubious league of filmmakers everyone wishes would return to their previous form.

He hasn't yet with this one. It only seems like it on the surface.

It is 689 AD in Tang Dynasty China, on the eve of Wu Zetian's (Carina Lau) coronation as the first female Empress. A giant Buddha statue is being built to commemorate her ascendancy - until two mysterious deaths by spontaneous human combustion halt the construction. Wu's loyal handmaid-cum-bodyguard Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) recommends enlisting the famous Di Renjie (Andy Lau), a court official who has languished in exile for 8 years for rebelling against the then-Regent Wu. With Jing'er and another court officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) tagging along, Detective Dee takes the case. He seeks the aid of the statue's architect and Dee's old comrade Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai), as well as a medicine man named Donkey Wang (Richard Ng) - but a visit from the openly treasonous General Li Xiao (Lu Yao) exposes intrigues that could threaten the entire Middle Kingdom.

Tsui is most famous for reviving the wuxia genre, but at least one pie that he's always had his finger in is fantasy - see Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. And Detective Dee is much more a fantasy film than it is wuxia, making use of its historical China backdrop the same way J.R.R. Tolkien evoked the European Middle Ages. Ostensibly it's a detective story, in which seemingly supernatural mysteries are revealed to have mundane causes - but "mundane" is relative here, since the causes themselves are pretty far out there. So yes, fantastical detective story in set in Tang Dynasty China with plenty of elaborate action setpieces - it's the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes meets Lord of the Rings in China. And directed by Tsui Hark. Sounds awesome, duzznit? It should've been - if it weren't such a complete and utter mess.

For one thing, the plot is incredibly confusing. Plot points are glossed over, characters get no proper introduction, and exposition is treated as an inconvenience to be done with as quickly as possible. This plus Tsui's penchant for throwing as much weird-ass stuff into his movies as possible means you'll be going "WTF?" every few minutes throughout. Not only are there character motivations to decipher and a mystery to be investigated, there's also a talking deer, a mace with +5 Sunder Weapon, steampunk robots, magical acupuncture, and some creepy-crawlies known as "fire beetles." And there's an underground Phantom Bazaar that seems to be Tsui's version of the Troll Market in Hellboy II: The Golden Army - but lacking Guillermo Del Toro's imagination (and budget), it's just a bunch of pale-faced guys in rags.

Which is emblematic of how Tsui's ideas in this movie far exceed his ability to execute them competently. I'm honestly shocked that this movie was made by one of the greatest film directors of all time. The direction is terrible. Over and over again, Tsui chooses the absolute wrong shot or camera angle. Not only does this make the plot hard to follow, it renders its lead actor's performance moot. Detective Dee is supposed to be a quirky genius in the vein of Holmes, as irreverent as he is brilliant. But every time he says something witty or does something clever or makes an ingenious deduction, the camera cuts to someone else's face. Whatever Andy Lau did with the role, for some inexplicable reason Tsui won't let us see it. (The rest of the cast aren't too impressive either; most of them struggle with the film's cheesy-melodramatic tone.)

And when did he forget how to film an action scene? Bad enough the fight scenes employ the kind of excessive physics-defying wirework of '90s Hong Kong flicks, once again the camerawork and editing ruin whatever thrills they could offer; they certainly hide whatever kungfu skill Lau, Deng Chao and Li Bingbing trained for. The sad thing is that the genuinely spectacular setpieces are the film's only saving grace, and it's enough to earn it 2-½ stars from me. The climax set within the interior of the giant Buddha statue - because of course you gotta have an action scene in such an elaborate set - is so full of this-could-be-so-cool that it's almost actually cool. But the mid-second-act fight scene between our three investigators and a mysterious assailant with a multi-vector assault mode (yes) is just sloppy.

Sloppy really is the best word I can think of to describe this film (and the sloppiness extends to the subtitles, which keeps referring to the fire beetles as fire turtles. Seriously, WTF?). Despite its quite technically proficient CGI and gorgeous production design, Detective Dee feels like one of those early-'90s cheapies that folks like Wong Jing would rush out half a dozen of in a year. But to be honest, Tsui himself cranked out a few of those during that time - so, is this, in fact, a return to form for him? Only in the sense that he's back to making the kind of wildly imaginative action movies he's most famous for - but not in the sense that he's made a good one. Which only goes to show that, even when playing with his favourite toys, he's still very much hit and miss. This one goes wide off the mark.

Expectations: aaaaa claustrophobia


Em said...

When I came out of the cinema I told my friend it was like watching a Chinese remake of The Mummy IV slash Sherlock Holmes slash Percy Jackson the Lightning Thief slash Clash of the Titans. Disappointed was the word.