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Kung Fu Hustler

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

2011 Tribeca Film Festival

It’s a good thing that Tsui Hark has never jumped on the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” bandwagon. Although to be fair, he probably didn’t see any point in impressing audiences outside Hong Kong after his pair of underwhelming Hollywood one-two punch Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles, “Knock Off” and “Double Team.” Poor Mr. Tsui. Even Mr. Van Damme has since redeemed himself with “JCVD” (which incidentally features a character who is an obnoxious hot-shot Hong Kong filmmaker, presumably based on you-know-who). Will Hollywood learn to forgive?

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (just “Di Renjie” in Mandarin) is mostly the kind of old-school wuxia pian one would expect from Mr. Tsui — meaning, it’s totally nonsensical and lots of fun regardless. The only difference between then and now is that Mr. Tsui has gone overboard with the miniature sets and the C.G.I. And we’re not talking about the cohesive, spectacular visuals that John Woo employed in “Red Cliff.” We’re talking about the bombastic, messy and somewhat cheap looking stuff that has become a wuxia staple post-“Crouching Tiger.” Fortunately, Mr. Tsui spares us much of the ponderous proceedings aimed at a Western/art-house audience and instead treats us to nonstop ass-kicking choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung.

What’s tragic about “Detective Dee” is the fact that it rapes a chapter of Chinese history beyond any semblance of reality. It’s not that filmmakers aren’t entitled to a little artistic license, but we’re talking revisionism involving actual historical figures here. Not claiming to be an authority on Chinese history, this critic seems to recall a 1985 Taiwanese TV series “Yidai nuhuang,” also based on the life of Wu Zetian, that offered more political intrigue if not just as much butt-kicking. But given that the film’s target audience is clearly the post-Cultural Revolution mainlanders, probably no one will be crying fowl over its lack of historical accuracy.


Opens on Sept. 2 in Manhattan.

Directed by Tsui Hark; action direction by Sammo Hung; written by Chang Chia-lu; director of photography, Chan Chi-ying and Parkie Chan; edited by Yau Chi-wai; art direction by James Choo; costumes by Bruce Yu; released by Indomina Releasing. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Andy Lau (Dee Renjie), Li Bingbing (Shangguan Jing’er), Carina Lau (Empress Wu), Tony Leung Ka-fai (Shatuo Zhong) and Chao Deng (Pei).


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