Many people have praised “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” as the long-awaited comeback of legendary director Tsui Hark when in fact it’s just another example of everything that’s wrong with Asian cinema. It’s way too long and feels even longer, the plot is incomprehensible at times, and the tone is all over the place. This is a movie that has its hands in some many different genres (from wu xia, to supernatural thriller, to detective story, and historical epic) that it never really creates its own identity.
Set in the late 7th Century on the eve of the coronation of China’s first female emperor, the film follows renowned detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau) as he’s called into action to solve a mystery involving the deaths of several of the empress’ most trusted officials. The men have all been killed by spontaneously bursting into flames, and though some believe it’s the work of divine intervention, Detective Dee knows that there’s someone of flesh and blood behind the murders. But in order to crack the case, Dee teams up with the empress’ favorite enforcer (Bingbing Li) and an albino official (Chao Deng) to help with investigation, neither of whom he trusts.
Though he’s been referred to as the Asian equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, Detective Dee’s first cinematic adventure isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be. The potential was certainly there (especially with a great actor like Andy Lau in the lead role), but the film is sorely lacking the wit and complexity that’s made Holmes such an engaging character for all these years. When Lau gets the chance to inject a little humor into the story, it’s actually quite fun, but Hark abandons that comedic tone early on and the movie never really recovers from it. Add to that some surprisingly dull action sequences and subpar special effects, and “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” fails to be anything more than another great concept thwarted by an industry that favors quantity over quality.