I ventured over to the local arthouse for what is sure to be an abbreviated run of Tsui Hark's mouthful of a film, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame". A Chinese-Hong Kong co-production, the film is a bit of pickle to categorize, although wire-fu action-mystery seems the most appropriate and (if you can believe it) economical.
Tony Lau stars as the title character, who is summoned by Empress Wu Zetian in AD 690 to investigate the mysterious deaths of several key senior officials. A strange brew, the film plays like everything from an historical action film to a Sherlock Holmes whodunit to an Indiana Jones-like adventure, occasionally all at once.
In addition to its perplexing, indeterminate genre elements, the film's neat, acrobatic fight scenes find are equally as cagey, juggling traditional martial arts with black magic wizardry. So you know what you're in for, the film has a talking deer, metamorphic royal court members and poisonous fire turtles that causes you to combust internally in the sun.
If at times "Detective Dee" feels either too familiar or too weird, I found that, with a thoroughly grand action-climax, that this peculiar genre-processor eventually took me in. It's become banal to even utter the phrase, but honestly, there's more craft and invention here than in too many films I saw this summer. [B]