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Tribeca 2011: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie)

The 10th Tribeca Film Festival begins and Tsui Hark delivers a gonzo period chop-socker that should be oh so much more than it is.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie)

Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Jean-Michel Casanova, Teddy Robin Kwan, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng
Rated: NR
Studio: Indomina Releasing
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-04-21 (Tribeca Film Festival)

It was a good and appreciative crowd on Thursday, 21 April. The previous night, which opened the 10th Tribeca Film Festival, had seen the usual throngs over at the gala premiere of the new Cameron Crowe documentary on Elton John and Leon Russell, The Union. It was a strange choice for the Festival's first film, being neither New York-identified nor attention-grabbing, but then Tribeca has had problems like this nearly from its start.

The Festival began as a sprawling, enthusiastic downtown spring counterweight to the snootier, uptown New York Film Festival of the fall. While Lincoln Center’s eminently respectable offerings were like flares sent up to alert snoozing Academy voters to get their ballots out, Tribeca specialized in a tangly mess of underwhelming small-scale dramas doomed never to be properly released, but also a solid slate of foreign films and some excellently scrappy documentaries. Recently, it’s migrated around Manhattan, eventually settling down in a number of Chelsea and Village theaters that are just far enough away from each other to make one have to hustle in between screenings. The programmers have narrowed their focus considerably, leaving a schedule with fewer and fewer outright duds, but still a number of films with stars who help the Festival garner more than its fair share of media attention when they pop by the opening.

This year's program started in earnest on Thursday with the newest film from wuxia master Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China). The promisingly titled Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame -- which screens again 22 and 28 April -- makes just about as little sense on paper as any of Hark’s films, but in brief can be described as an ancient Chinese dynastic drama intertwined with a detective story, leavened by ghostly mystery and gravity-free combat. That doesn’t quite do it justice, but when faced with a film where the protagonist has to leap from pillar to pillar in order to avoid fighting a herd of possessed deer, words become elusive.

Would that Detective Dee could live up to its billing. Set in the seventh century, it offers a long-winded prologue in which a widowed Empress (Carina Lau, her extreme untrustworthiness illustrated by highly dramatic drawn-on eyebrows) is about to ascend the throne, the first time a woman will do so. For the sake of being ostentatious, she’s building a skyscraper-sized statue of the Buddha, planned for completion on the day of her coronation. Only problem is, some of the people working on it have this bad habit of bursting into flame around her.

And so the Empress sends for the renowned Detective Dee (Andy Lau) -- based on the historical figure Di Renjie, a legal official of the Tang Dynasty who is also the basis for a series of mid-20th-century mystery novels -- who doesn’t have much else to do, having been imprisoned eight years prior for treason. A sketchy, bearded rapscallion with a quick sense of humor, Dee gets himself a clean shave and a couple of sidekicks (an uptight albino guard and a beautiful but deadly royal courtier), then tries to solve the case.

The mystery is handled with overmuch care by Hark, who has previously shown himself to be a dab hand at whipping nonsensical froth into a plot that can't be parsed by an entire team of dramatists and semioticians, but whose fizz and pop and sheer bloody nerve often make up the difference. This film, though, never builds up much momentum. After a handful of scenes in which Dee and his grumpy female sidekick (Bingbing Lai) do a passable dance of opposites attracting -- particularly in one would-be nighttime seduction interrupted by a literal blizzard of crossbow bolts that shred their room’s paper walls -- Hark seems to forget his detective’s hard-boiled charm.

Instead, the film plods along from one overwritten and overdesigned scene to the next. The costumes' stiffness sucks the giddiness out of frequently preposterous plot turns (the demonic deer, for one). And Sammo Hung’s fight choreography rarely thrills, as Hark shoots too close-in and surrounds it with cartoonish CGI. In lieu of excitement, the film offers courtly pageantry, punctuated by a subtext that demands unity of the realm over everything else.

If it's not clear that Beijing is in fact oppressing current art, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the great Hong Kong and Chinese practitioners of the wuxia genre have in the past decade or so moved from stories of gutsy lower-class upstarts beating the system to royal tales of rebellion and palace intrigue like Curse of the Golden Flower, where state edicts are hardly subtle (disunity and disharmony being the two greatest evils). Whether or not this is Hark's point of view cannot be said. What can be said is that if his work in this increasingly moribund genre is undermining the anarchic spark that made his earlier films such welcome treats.


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