You asked for it, you got it: a wuxia epic built around a season-kickoff episode of Fringe. When a bigwig overseeing a massive construction project disintegrates in a ball of fire, seemingly from the inside out, an unlikely team of investigative professionals is thrown together to solve the mystery before China crowns its first female ruler. There’s the white-haired, by-the-books Shatuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), whose pragmatism may get the best of him. There’s the slinky femme fatale, Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), whose covert agenda seems subject to change, based on the situation. And there’s the title detective, a loose canon with a brilliant mind, who at the start has been imprisoned for speaking out against the empress-to-be. Oh, and I should probably mention that the movie is set in the seventh century, where history did, in fact, see Wu Zetian disrupt the continuity of the Tang Dynasty and become the first woman who legitimately, as opposed to via surrogates and family, ran China.
Such an event, momentous in and of itself, but also set in the distant past, allows director Tsui Hark to weave into a straightforward detective story a number of fanciful ideas and images; the first hour alone contains a talking deer, a Styx-like underground river, and sawblade-spinning marionettes. Hark, one of the world’s most respected and admired action directors, doesn’t always get his due as a fantasist or absurdist filmmaker, or as a purveyor of rich period detail, but let us not forget the menacing, prehensile eyebrows in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, the relentless kineticism and eye-popping production design of his Once Upon a Time in China series, or his only attempt at English-language crossover, which left in its wake the two weirdest movies of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s (or anyone’s) career: Knock Off and Double Team.
Shot with a Red Camera, and apparently sparing no expense in the areas of huge, epic sets, fight choreography, and special effects, Detective Dee loses a little intimacy in its attempt to get a good look at everything, and there’s almost as much exposition in the dialogue as there was in the notorious opening 70 minutes of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. But it’s also pretty rewarding, since every five or 10 minutes there’s something insanely mystical, or 90 bad guys firing arrows, or Detective Dee and Shangguan are having a knock-down, drag-out fight that’s nevertheless flirtatious and hot, and everything’s synchronized (courtesy Sammo Hung) and badass. Hark being Hark, there’s some slow-down between set pieces, but then he ups the ante on eye-popping spectacle until the film reaches some kind of action-drama-surrealist-historical nirvana.
A little plasticine, but that's 4K HD video plus rigorous color-correction for you. It's also, unfortunately, the result of heavy edge enhancement, which over-clarifies the HD picture without subduing the digital noise that rises like a fog in dark scenes and solid color patterns. As you might expect from the title, there are plenty of flames to go around—torches, hearths, candles, spontaneous-combustion victims—and there's also plenty of haloing around them. The best one can say about the visual presentation is that the over-management is well-intentioned, and Tsui Hark's insane storybook images are made to pop.
Strictly by-the-numbers: a making-of documentary and some promo stuff. Better than nothing, but just.
Tsui Hark's surreal wuxia gets problematic transfer, but lives to tell the tale.