Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is so batshit that calling it director Tsui Hark’s comeback is an aptly ridiculous claim. Hark’s new film is a consummately bizarre crowd-pleaser that throws everything at the viewer from makeshift plastic surgery by acupuncture to death by spontaneous combustion. Hark navigates a hyper-convoluted series of plot twists with a weirdly self-possessed kind of poise. Hark’s made weaker films out of equally crazy source material, like his schizoid segment from Triangle, the omnibus film he co-directed with Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. But he hasn’t pulled of something this strange and this well in a while. By the end of Detective Dee, you’ll watch the Buddha’s face attack the only Chinese empress in history and sincerely enjoy it as a spectacular disaster set piece. Hark’s back and in a big, screwy kind of way.
When two government officials spontaneously combust, the Empress Wu (Carina Lau) orders Detective Dee (an emaciated Andy Lau) to be set free from prison. Almost immediately thereafter, she appoints him chief investigator on the titular case. Being an observant survivor, Dee doesn’t believe any of the honeyed words that are fed to him by potential suspects and allies alike, not even Shangguan Jing’er (Bingbing Li), the fetching bodyguard/spy that the Empress has assigned to keep tabs on Dee.
Dee knows something is up considering that the Empress is about to be officially instated. To ferret out the plot against her, Dee interrogates everyone, including the religious chaplain that uses stags for his mouthpiece and Dr. Donkey Wang (Richard Ng!), the underground herbalist that lives in an elaborate series of catacombs and eats millipedes. Everyone is a suspect and nobody is safe so look out for that arrow, beware of the tree-logs-as-depth-charges, and stay clear of the sleeping powder—it’s going to be a very choppy ride.
Hark never slows down long enough to consider the increasingly ludicrous nature of Detective Dee‘s scenario. Which is no small feat considering that all plot points, including the abrupt, violently explosive, and seemingly random murders that pepper the film, are treated with equal importance. That having been said, if there’s one thing holding his epic-scale romantic-adventure-mystery-martial-arts whatsit back from achieving greatness, it’s Hark’s unwillingness to laugh a little more at Detective Dee‘s preposterousness. The conciliatory resolution of the tension between Wu and Dee is laughably stiff. Hark’s biggest weakness as a storyteller is still his lack of self-awareness. Then again, if he did become more self-aware, Detective Dee probably wouldn’t even be as affably daft either. You can’t have one without the other in this case, making Detective Dee a happy compromise and, yes, a fun comeback too.