Chinese blockbusters: Detective Dee

(from left) Detective Dee (Andy Lau), Jing'er (Li Bingbing) and Donglai (Deng Chao)

The cinema audience in China is expanding very quickly. The final 2011 audience figures are likely to confirm the extraordinary growth rate shown in 2010 when four new cinema screens were opening each day. Since most screens are now in new multiplexes, often with 3D/IMAX possibilities, it isn’t surprising that locally-produced blockbusters compete on very favourable terms with Hollywood’s tentpole releases (which have restricted access to the market with only so many titles allowed and only at specific times).

Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame (HK/China 2010) was one of the big hits locally and regionally in East Asia in Autumn 2010 and it makes an interesting case study of the new Chinese commercial cinema. Like most such films it is a co-production between Hong Kong and China. Although mostly filmed in mainland China from a mainland story and script, the producer-director (Tsui Hark), action director(Sammo Hung) and three of the five acting leads (Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka-fai) are from the Hong Kong industry. The central character, Detective Dee, is based on a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD), Di Renjie, who was then fictionalised in a series of books by a Dutch sinologist, Robert van Gulik. Several American commentators have likened the film to Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, i.e. as a mystery/thriller set in a historical period but played like a modern action film.

Outline (no spoilers)

In the year 679 AD (in European terms) the dowager Empress Wu Zetian has been the de facto power in the land for several years, often dealing harshly with any resistance to her plans. Now she intends to be crowned as Empress in her own right. The coronation is intended to take place after the completion of a giant 200 feet high Buddha. But when a foreign emissary is being shown around the interior of the soon to be completed Buddha things start to go wrong. Two senior officials internally combust without warning. Is the Empress in danger. She decides to send for ‘Detective Dee’ currently incarcerated in a maximum security prison. His release from prison attracts a gang of assassins who take their own lives rather than accept capture. With two reluctant assistants, the female bodyguard of the Empress and a senior officer of the Supreme Court, Detective Dee gets to work to solve the mystery.


I was interested in the genre mix here and how it has been interpreted outside China. The ‘meta-genre’ or ‘broad category’ is the historical action picture. I don’t know if there is an equivalent Chinese term for the Japanese concept of the jedai-geki or ‘period film’ but many Chinese and Korean films come into this category. Detective Dee seems to fall somewhere between the classical wuxia or martial chivalry film and the ‘kung fu’ film from Hong Kong. I take the former to be more ritualised and the latter to be more flexible and applicable across categories. I’m conscious that this may be a false distinction – any help gratefully received! Some of the Hong Kong films that I have seen add supernatural elements to the mix (A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987 – produced by Tsui Hark– and The Bride With White Hair, 1993). The latter film stars Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung and is one of several romance action dramas with strong female figures. Sammo Hung was also responsible for a sub-genre of kung fu zombie/vampire films starting with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, 1980. Detective Dee features supernatural elements which the detective must investigate in terms of rational explanations. The Chinese actor Li Bingbing plays the female bodyguard and thus for Western audiences is a reminder of the characters played by Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung in the wuxia romance films Crouching Tiger, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. However, in Detective Dee, there is little or no romance element and only a frisson of erotic excitement in the first encounter between Li and Lau. Instead, the film plays on the mystery element. Perhaps surprisingly given the Sherlock Holmes comparison there isn’t a lot of comedy amongst the action scenes. Some commentators have suggested that Andy Lau, arguably the biggest male star in East Asia, is rather wasted in the film as he doesn’t have to be witty or prove that he is a heartthrob.What he has to do is think, fight and remain a man of principle. This makes Detective Dee rather different from the typical Hollywood action hero, creating possible barriers for Western audiences. The title too might be a problem. In China it was Di Renjie but the English title suggests something like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter.


If my genre description makes the film sound dull, fear not. It isn’t dull by any means. Hark doesn’t let the pace slacken over two hours. Any scene that requires exposition to set up/move on the mystery is quickly followed by a highly choreographed and spectacular action sequence courtesy of Sammy Hung and wire-work. There are also moments when you want the action to stop to allow time to take in the incredible sets and the CGI work, especially around the imperial palace and the Buddha statue. I’m no expert on CGI, but it looked OK to me, certainly no worse than Hollywood, Bollywood or South Korea. (And it’s certainly an achievement on a film budgeted at around US$20 million.) It does lend an air of fantasy to the film however. It’s interesting to compare the settings to those depicting Alexandria in Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (Spain 2009). Amenábar’s understated realism still manages to represent the spectacular whereas Hark’s film has some very dodgy touches such as a harbour full of galleons, seemingly a Western European design of the 16th century. Added to this are the foreign emissaries who visit the court from Umayyad Caliphate speaking in Spanish rather than Arabic. But none of this matters. This isn’t a realist or aesthetically exact art film. It’s an entertainment and as such it works very well – though it could sometimes do with a touch of lightness. It’s sad that Leslie Cheung isn’t around as he was in the 1908s and 1990s. It’s also sad that because previous Chinese blockbusters like John Woo’s Red Cliff haven’t drawn UK audiences to cinemas, more recent films like Detective Dee are only available on DVD. They cry out for a big screen showing and, who knows, this might be the start of a franchise.

One last thought. There is an obvious parallel with Zhang Yimou’s Hero at the level of the ideological. Hero was widely criticised, especially in the US, as a film that legimitised the Chinese government through its implicit celebration of the formation of the Chinese state through conquest. Detective Dee similarly asks the question – should the Empress be saved even though she is cruel and ruthless because she represents stability and the promise of prosperity for the people?

UK English subtitled trailer:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.