Tsui Hark has done quite a few wrongs in recent years- think "Missing" and "The Legend of Zu"- but thankfully "Detective Dee" is not one of them. In fact, it is that one right which proves Tsui Hark isn't a has- been, a not-too unreasonable conclusion to draw considering the quality of his recent works. An engrossing historical whodunit in the vein of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes", Tsui Hark's latest big-budget blockbuster is significant not only because it restores his status as one of the premier Hong Kong film directors, but also because it is game-changing entertainment for the Chinese film industry.
For far too long, the expensive Chinese historical epics have revelled in telling tales of war and sacrifice set amidst warring states or feuding emperors jostling for power. Not to say that they aren't any good- John Woo's "Red Cliff" and Peter Chan's "The Warlords" among some of the best- but their similarities were apparent, and with that came a distinct sense of staleness especially of late. Tsui Hark's entry into this genre however brings a welcome breeze of freshness, deftly combining the elements of an Agatha Christie novel with the aesthetics of a period epic.
The mystery to solve is the spontaneous combustion of two high-ranking court officials when exposed to sunlight, these 'murders' taking place in the wake of the coronation of China's first empress in 690 AD. Most have attributed their deaths to superstitious reasons, but our titular hero Detective Dee thinks otherwise. Released from prison by the very empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) whose ascendancy he opposed eight years ago, Detective Dee searches instead for rational explanations, believing in science and reason than black magic.
Though based on a real-life Tang Dynasty court official, Andy Lau's Detective Dee is more akin to the investigator made popular by a series of novels by Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik. Here, he has two uneasy allies- the empress' most trusted servant Jing'er (Li Bingbing) sent to keep an eye on him, as well as albino Supreme Cop officer Pei Donglei (Deng Chao)- both of whom he trusts little of. But that's all right since he can pretty much fight for himself, as evidenced in the numerous action sequences directed by "Ip Man's" Sammo Hung.
In the spirit of the best mystery thrillers, the real fun comes from trying to piece together the parts of the puzzle before the final reveal. Scripter Zheng Jialu doesn't make it easy, throwing plenty of red herrings this way and that to distract you from guessing the villain. There is divine intervention in the form of a talking deer, facial transfiguration that basically allows one person to assume two personas and exotic creatures such as the fire turtle. Yet Zheng's firm determination to keep the story grounded in reality prevents the film from descending into camp.
That same restraint is displayed admirably and wisely by Tsui Hark himself. Sure, there are still his familiar signs of excess- the massive Buddha bronze statue built for the occasion of the coronation; the peculiar characters Detective Dee encounters in an underground city; and even the empress' elaborate coiffure- but these visual touches add colour and sparkle to the fantasy world Tsui has dreamt up for his period mystery without diverting from the intrigue and suspense of the film. Tsui's flourishes are also brought gorgeously to life by rich production design and masterful art direction, matched occasionally by lavish costume design whenever the Empress appears on screen.
Sammo's action direction too deserves praise. While the action scenes do not rise to the same great heights as "Ip Man", he makes the best out of his main cast of Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, Deng Chao and Tony Leung Kar- Fai. The wire-ful choreography is thrilling enough to set your pulse racing, and two particular action sequences stand out- one set in the underground city between Dee and the Imperial Chaplain and his possum of masked assassins; and the other set in the towering Buddha statue where Dee finally unravels the nefarious plot in a thrilling climax.
As the lead character, Andy Lau brings plenty of charisma to the role of Detective Dee. Though the frenzied pace leaves little time for any character development, Andy nails down the titular character with the right amount of wit, intelligence and virtue. When you're not too distracted by what Tsui has placed on her head, Carina Lau will also impress you with her Machiavellian performance as the Empress. On a side note, cinephiles will also cheer the return of Teddy Robin- albeit in a small supporting role- after a long hiatus (preceded actually by last year's Gallants which sadly skipped local cinemas altogether).
With a generous dose of mystery, action spectacle and some classic palace intrigue sprinkled with some wit, Tsui Hark's "Detective Dee" is sure-fire epic entertainment that rivals Hollywood's "Sherlock Holmes". Indeed, if you've enjoyed the former, you're likely to feel likewise for the latter. It is a definite shot in the arm for the period historical epic that China has done to death over the past few years, and for Tsui Hark's floundering fortunes in the past few years. Possibilities for "Detective Dee" as a franchise are bright, and this may likely be Tsui's next big franchise a la "Aces Go Places" and "Once Upon A Time in China"