When I heard that Tsui Hark's latest film, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" came to Blu-Ray Disc, I simply had to have a copy to check out. Ever since I saw "A Chinese Ghost Story" in my youth, I've been a big admirer of Hark's fantasy and period movies.
Like so many Asian period films, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is an alternate history story, where the filmmakers take actual events and characters from history and combine them with new elements. In this case, the story revolves around the Empress Wu Zetian, a notorious figure from China's past. She was not only the first - and only - female emperor in the country's history, but she gained a lot notoriety as a result of the means she used to attain that position. First ruling with her husband and her sons, rumor has it that she had them all killed in order to become the sole emperor in 690. It made her a lot of enemies, naturally, but despite her ruthlessness and her ability to control politicks her way, Empress Wu also had a gentle side. She always had the her people in mind and used her reign mostly to better the conditions of the working classes. In that, she often reminds me of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Days before her coronation, a series of strange deaths, where people suddenly burst into flames and burn up, come to her attention. Certain that this is meant to be a strike against her, Wu puts together China's first police task force and wants only the best minds working the case.
The problem is that Detective Dee, the best police officer the nation had ever seen, is one of her most vehement opponents. So much so that she had him sent to prison eight years earlier. With the promise of parole, she gets Dee to cooperate with her and despite his misgivings, the detective sets about to find the culprit. Soon he finds that surprises lurk on every corner and nothing is what it seems. Even his notions of the Empress change as he unravels the mystery that threatens to kill her.
It has been a long time since I saw a Chinese movie that captured me like "Detective Dee." It carries Tsui Hark's trademark style with high flying action, but also offers solid character development throughout. However, I would be remiss in pointing out that some of the computer generated effects come across as a tad flat. I also noted with dismay that Hark made the same critical error some Hollywood directors have done as of late, by mixing film footage with that shot on digital cameras. As a result, there are many scenes in the film - mostly action scenes - where the film resembles more of a TV soap opera than the lavish movie production that it is. Just as michael Mann completely butchered "Public Enemies" this way, I was very surprised to see that a visually driven director like Tsui Hark would stumble into the same pitfall. Sadly, it marred the experience quite a bit for me, leaving me with a somewhat tarnished impression of the movie despite its other qualities.
Indomina, a label of the Vivdeni Group, presents the film in a 1080p high definition transfer on this disc, and the transfer was very good for the most part. I did notice a bit of banding in some of the shots where very subtle color delineations were at work, but other than that, the presentation exhibit little flaws else. Colors are wonderfully vibrant and rich, making the best of the lush production, while black levels were deep and always made sure the image has solid visual depth.
Th film is accompanied by a Mandarin audio track in DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio format, that also makes for a dynamic presentation. Solid bass response and clear high ends that are free of distortion, give the track good liveliness. That impression is carried through to the soundtrack as well, which is very atmospheric and makes good use of the format's audio capabilities.
You will find English and French subtitles on the disc.
To spice up the release, the disc features a few bonus materials also, such asa Making-Of featurette, a look at the stunts and the characters, as well as the world of Dee. The release is rounded out with photos and trailers.
I enjoyed "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" quite a bit despite some of its shortcomings. If you love Chinese movies that revel in action, detail and costumes, this film is definitely for you. Plotted as a solid mystery, the film is a lot more accessible than some of the more romantic fare coming out of Hong Kong and it will sure keep you guessing. Definitely give it a try!