Movie Review & Spoilers:
Detective Dee and the
Mystery of the Phantom Flame
I saw this movie title and poster and was intrigued. An Asian, old-timey detective, who was described as the Chinese Sherlock Holmes? Yes, please! Whelp, I watched it this past weekend, and holy mother of pearl, I was not prepared for the craziness that was this movie.
The movie opens with a ridiculously tall statue of The Buddha. The statue is still in progress, but it is on schedule to be completely soon. If this statue was real, it would have become one of the seven wonders of the world, as it is a skyscraper! I think they said it was 66 stories tall, which would make it one of the tallest buildings in 2021.
An inspector is showing a foreign dignitary around, and while doing so, bursts into flame in a matter of seconds. So much so, that all his flesh is burned away and his skeleton is charcoal. I don’t think this is even realistically possible in the time that it happens, but let me know if I’m wrong about this.
So here we go, it’s already detective time.
First, we get these two men. One of these guys, the older one, imprisons the supervisor, Shatuo, under suspicion of murder, but on his way to update the new Empress, the older man also bursts into flame. The younger man is an albino, and his name is Pei. He is pretty cool, and that’s all I really have on him right now.
The Empress is visited by a deer (yes, a literal deer), and this deer is apparently the Chaplain. I have no idea what a Chaplain (as it was translated in my subtitles) is in this context, and the rest of the movie only further confused me. The Chaplain tell the Empress that she needs to find Detective Dee so that he can solve this case of the mysterious flame (yay, movie title!).
However, Detective Dee had been convicted of treason and sent to prison. So, the Empress sends an attendant, Jing’er, to find him in jail. She does, just as a team of assassins attack him. When you first see Dee, his eyes are almost all milky, as if he is blind. His friend and fellow prisoner, is also blind. However, to fight the assassins, we see that Dee was just faking his blindness by putting cherry blossom petals in his eyes.
Okay, first off: ow? The normal eyeball does not like an eyelash in it, let along a while cherry blossom petal. Not only would it hurt and be constantly irritating, but it would not look like your eyeball was milky, as cherry blossom petals are not transparent like that! And finally, how did these assassins know that someone from the palace was going to contact Dee to solve the case? Why would you make it so obvious that hiring Dee would be a good idea? Okay. Moving on.
Dee gets a fancy house or at least a living area where he can clean up, and for some reason, Jing’er tries to seduce him. And, it’s not a subtle seduction. She literally takes off her clothes, sits on top of him, and goes “Well? Are you going to do it?” …Nice.
He declines and they are almost killed by assassins again. They go out to investigate, and a guy named Prince Li is there. Li is telling Dee that he should join forces and screw the Empress over. At this point, I’m sorry, but isn’t it obvious that he controls or at least is related to this group of assassins that is trying to kill you?
Dee cleans up, and the next day, Pei joins the Jing’er and Dee, and they go to the evidence room, as well as the Buddha skyscraper. Shatuo and Dee are old buddies, so, at the Buddha Statue, Shatuo lets Dee know his theory about the deaths: that they were poisoned by fire beetle. Apparently, these fire beetles burst into flame when they come into contact with the sun. So, I guess this is a good theory since that’s exactly what happened to these men.
The trio go to a underground, black market area, where it is said these fire beetles can be found. They find the seller, and are attacked again. Assassins, as well as the Chaplain, attack them.
I’m going to pause here, because it was at this point in the movie where I was the most confused about who and what the Chaplain is. Is the Chaplain a human being with control over animals like the deer or are they a god? If the Chaplain is friends with the Empress, why is the Chaplain trying to kill our heroes? Are the Chaplain and the assassins working together?
Anyway, Dee saves the fire beetle merchant from the mayhem, and he finds out that the merchant has disguised himself and is really the old royal physician of the late Emperor. The disguisre is this cheesy, way-too-long animation where he has pinned his face using acupuncture to make it change shape.
Prince Li makes another appearance and returns Dee’s mace back to him. Dee’s mace is a weapon that he uses to find other item’s weak points and attacks them, breaking them in the process. In the next scene, Prince Li is the next to die by bursting into flame.
Dee determines he needs to go to the Monastery to speak to the Chaplain, but everyone tells him that if he does this, he will be executed. He does so anyway, and is confronted by the Chaplain. Dee notices that the Chaplain also has disguised themselves with acupuncture, and deduces that the Chaplain is actually Jing’er. Dee says that the Empress is just using Jing’er to stay in power and kill anyone who disagrees with her. Jing’er attacks Dee for this accusation, but does not kill him. On purpose. Like she does the thing where she hesitates and stabs the ground instead.
Okay, pausing again: what??? So, Jing’er was actually the Chaplain the whole time, including as the deer, and the attack in the market where, by the way, she was fighting the Chaplain. How did that even work? Is there even a real Chaplain? Is Jing’er the Chaplain disguised as an attendant, or is she an attendant disguised as the Chaplain? And she doesn’t kill Dee because….????
Jing’er gets Dee out of Monastery, but falls into a trap where two spears pierce her, and she is dying. Using her last bit of strength, she hides from the assassins who placed the trap. Dee wakes up and she tells him she just wants to go home, so Dee takes her back to the royal palace, where she dies.
Rewinding a bit: While Dee was at the Monastery, Pei had taken it upon himself to do some solo investigating. He goes to the inspector’s house (the first man who died), and finds a case-breaking clue. But before he can find Dee to give this to him, he is captured by the assassins.
So, after Jing’er dies, Dee looks for Pei, but falls into another trap: Pei was poisoned by the beetles already and is strapped to a contraption that makes him stay in the sun until he bursts into flames. Pei, with his dying breaths, tells Dee of the clue he found.
The clue, as it turns out, points to Shatuo being the big baddie behind the poisoning.
Which, by the way, I could have told you about 10 minutes into the film. Tony Leung, the actor who plays Shatuo, is well known to me, a person who has only seen a small variety of Chinese movies in her life. He is an award winning actor, has been in over 30 films. This is like if you told me Liam Neeson was just the supervisor of the statue and didn’t have a further role to play in the movie. Yeah, okay.
You could have also figured it out from a small clue they put in the movie at the very beginning, which ended up being Shatuo’s motive.
Dee contronts Shatuo at the Buddha statue. The clue Pei found was that there were huge holes in the base of the statue, which would cause a catastrophic failure in the statue, which is the intent. Shatuo wants the statue to fall on the royal palace and kill the Empress.
Dee and Shatuo fight; Dee gets poisoned by the beetles but is able to make it so that the statue does not fall directly onto the palace, but a little to the side. Shatuo is determined to kill the Empress one way or another, so he gets on a horse to poison her with the fire beetles. Dee manages to put the poison on Shatuo instead, and also saves the Empress from the falling statue.
The movie ends with Dee moving into the underground, black market area because he is still poisoned and he can never be in the sun again.
It was a confusing, convoluted movie with an obvious villain. I can usually suspend my disbelief, and at the beginning, with the extremely tall statue and the human combustion, I was okay. I was even okay with the deer coming to talk to the Empress. But I started hating the movie when Dee pulled the petals out of his eyes, and the hate was cemented in the stony seduction attempt by Jing’er.
The parts of the movie that I liked, which are very few, involve Pei. As I said before, he’s an albino, so I thought the sun making people burst into flame would be more relevant, since he also cannot spend too much time in the sun. However, it didn’t come up.
In doing research for this summary, I see that a lot of these people were real, including the Empress, Dee, and Jing’er, and I usually like movies that incorporate fiction with history, but this was not a good movie, despite it winning six (!?) awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Let me know if you have seen this movie, and we can talk about how bad it is together. And if somehow you liked the movie, you can try to convince me it was worth seeing, but I’m probably not budging from 1.5 stars.