When advertisements for Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Secret Flame (2010) began showing up on the back cover of many comic books in early summer, I looked forward to its theatrical release. When that, not surprisingly, failed to materialize (at least locally), I held out hope for an accessibly DVD release. Though not an aficionado of director Tsui Hark's films (most notably 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story), I knew enough about his previous films to recognize that his atmospheric and epic action-orientated aesthetic might be something I would be interested in seeing on the big screen
Though only on a 40" flat screen, rather than a movie theater one, fortunately for me (and you!), it is out and easy to find as it has just recently became available for download viewing on Netflix. Directed by acclaimed director Tsui Hark and starring Hong Kong uber-star Andy Lau in the title role, Detective Dee was a blockbuster overseas.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Secret Flame (2010) is an epic mystery and fictionalized account of Di Renjie, "Detective Dee" of the title, one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang Dynasty. Given its historical context, it is surprising how clearly the potentially cumbersome politic intrigue in the film is presented. While not even close to being a student of Chinese history, I had little trouble following the plot or action. As a Western viewer it was very easy to enjoy the film for what it is: an action mystery with sumptuous scenery and spectacular visual effects, albeit with subtitles.
Following about 15 minutes of exposition, Detective Dee is released from prison at the bequest of the future Emperor, or should I say "Empress" (a significant plot point), to solve the mystery of combustible Chinese officials--victims of what becomes known as "the Secret Flame." During his investigation Detective Dee crosses paths with many colorful (and colorless) characters: albino officer Pei Donglai who may or may not be a trustworthy ally, a subterranean, ancient mystic affectionately referred to as Donkey Wang, and what by all accounts is an Asian actor in black face and afro wig(!) intent on , among others, killing the good Detective. Did I forget to mention that much of the action takes place in and around a colossal Buddha statue featured in the trailer above, and that there are ninja deer involved?
Over two hours in length, the film will undoubtedly seem very reminiscent to the domestically popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) directed by Ang Lee. Besides some wire-fu (including a tree trunk chase scene similar to the bamboo one in Crouching Tiger, I found Detective Dee more fun. While Crouching Tiger remains a tremendously beautiful and romantic meditation on the Chinese action film, Detective Dee struck me as a simple (yet EPIC!) whodunit which just so happens to involve the aforementioned wild "things." As pure entertainment, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Secret Flame it is definitely worth seeking out and spending time with.