I love a good mystery story, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and I like Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders, and the Murdoch Mysteries series from Canada. So when I found a Chinese version of the kind of thing I like, I figured “why the hell not?” Enter Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Based on the real life Chancellor of Empress Wu Zetian, the story starts off with the sudden death of an architect working on a giant Buddha commissioned by the Empress. He dies by what seems to be spontaneous combustion, of course there’s more to it than that; especially when another official dies the same way. Advised by her Chaplain, the Empress summons Dee (who was imprisoned after opposing the Empress’ rise to power) to take charge of the case. She doesn’t entirely trust Dee though, so she sends her servant Jing’er to keep an eye on him. Penal officer Pei Donglai joins the investigation as well, and the trio sets off to find the killer before he can target the Empress.
Unsurprisingly, the movie plays fast and loose with the actual history. But if you aren’t well versed in Chinese history, I doubt you’ll notice. There’s also quite a bit of the wire work action sequences that Chinese film has become famous for. While the movie doesn’t exactly have the budget that a Hollywood backed production would have, the production values are still pretty good. The costumes and sets are impressive, and while there are a few hiccups where the CGI is a little too prominent, the wire work stuff makes up for it.
The mystery itself is fairly well done, but the reveal of who the Chaplain is seems a bit off to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but it really did seem to come out of nowhere. That said, the acting is pretty good; Andy Lau does well as Dee, but the real stand-outs in my opinion are Carina Lau as Empress Wu and Deng Chao as Pei. Carina Lau brings a ruthless grace to Wu, making her an interesting character to watch. Chao makes Pei a relatable character, even if he’s a bit hot-headed.
Overall, it’s a pretty good and fun movie. If you like Chinese action movies, I think you’ll find a lot to like about this movie. If you’re a mystery fan, this is an interesting take on the genre.
Overall rating: 6.9/10