The Emperor is dead and next in line to replace him is a woman. Never in the history of China has there been an Empress. As her coronation draws closer, loyalties are tested, schemes are rumored, and when people start to literally burst into flames, the stakes can be no higher for all involved. This is the set up for an in-depth mystery with a side of kung fu action.
In late 7th century China, thousands of laborers are working under pressure to complete an immensely tall tower in the shape of the Buddha in time for the Empress’s coronation. There are rumors that her predecessor did not die of natural causes and there are rebel armies in the countryside eager to invade and prevent her from taking power. While on an inspection tour of the tower, the chief architect suddenly bursts into flames and burns to death in a matter of seconds. While investigating this occurrence, the chief investigator then bursts into flames as well. Is this divine intervention for tampering with magic amulets or is something more sinister afoot?
The man put on the case is Detective Dee (Andy Lau from House of Flying Daggers). He has been imprisoned for the past eight years for opposing the Empress’s (Carina Lau from 2046) rise to regent; however, it is she who releases him to find the culprits because the realm’s Imperial Chaplain says it must be so. Joining his investigative team are a trusted aide to the Empress who is to keep tabs on him, Jing’er (Bingbing Li from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan & the Forbidden Kingdom), and an albino detective, Pei Donglai (Chao Deng). Very few people want to see Detective Dee succeed and find the plot’s mastermind. He continuously dodges assassination attempts, interrogates hostile witnesses, and must face off against some paranormal forces which appear to be involved.
The Detective Dee character is based on the Chinese folk hero Di Renjie who remains a popular figure from China’s Tang Dynasty who ruled from the 7th to 10th centuries. He is wise not only in the ways of following leads in a case but in the politics behind the case itself. He recognizes and easily dissects the true motivations behind why he was chosen to investigate these matters and can see two steps down the road just as easily as he can hear an assassin’s arrow flying through the air.
The downfall of this film is its ridiculous use of CGI. No attempt was made to make any backgrounds or scenery look real, wide shots of the city are cringe inducing, and you can almost make out the individual pixels which comprise the Buddha tower. When focused on the mystery and when the characters are discussing methods and possible perpetrators, the script is engaging and the film is at its best. However, when characters stop to talk about the past or their feelings, it usually takes a nose dive and makes you wait to just get those scenes out of the way.
Compared to its obvious cousins of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and the House of Flying Daggers, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is way at the bottom of the list. The action sequences are not as eye-popping, the dialogue is stunted, and any hint of true emotion is as fake as the film’s CGI. Stay away from Detective Dee.