April 26, 2011

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The Tribeca Film Festival still exists. Having succeeded in its intent to help revitalize the economy of lower Manhattan after 9/11, the festival has spread out across the city, and has maintained its commerce-over-art stance. As a business venture it seems like an unqualified success, and has gained a little more respect as a market for distributors along the way. But as for the films themselves, it’s always been a bit of an embarrassment. Heavy on celebrity directorial debuts (this year: Billy Corgan and Vera Farmiga) and slumming stars in sub-Sundance “indies”, the movies are essentially waiting lines for the after-parties. With a festival this huge, there is always something to be salvaged, usually in the shorts or genre programs. But in recent years I haven’t been willing  to pay the price (Steve Dollar in GreenCine and Matt Singer and Stephen Saito at IFC News are two doing such yeoman’s work). The only title in TFF’s program I was aching to see was Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), and as it was already available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Asia, I watched it at home instead of braving the beautiful crowds.

Detective Dee is the 50th film produced by Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop company, and has been hailed as a return to form by no less a Hark expert than Subway Cinema guru Grady Hendrix. A madcap mixture of Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, martial arts and historical melodrama, it’ll be sure to top any gargantuan Hollywood entertainment this year for most invention per square inch of screen space. It hearkens back to Hark’s salad days of Shanghai Blues (1984) and Peking Opera Blues (1986)  hyperkinetic magpie films that combined the classical art forms of his youth with high (and low)-flying action. Detective Dee is subdued by comparison, but still manages to pack in a trilogy’s worth of twists and turns. After his failed attempt to ape Johnnie To’s sleek geometrical violence in the omnibus film Triangle (2007), it’s an unmitigated delight to see him return to his wild pseudo-historical mode – “nationalism on speed”, as Stephen Teo described it in Hong Kong: The Extra Dimensions.

Detective Dee is based on the Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie, who was immortalized in an 18th Century Chinese detective novel entitled The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The Dutch diplomat and writer Robert Van Gulick translated it into English, and then modeled his own crime series on the character of Judge Dee, which ran from 1946 – 1967. From 2004 – 2007, the CCTV network of China ran a drama series based on the stories of his life, entitled Amazing Detective Di Renjie, which stimulated the interest for the big screen adaptation.

It is A.D. 690, and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to be coronated as Empress, the first and only female ruler of China. However! Two of her subjects burst into flames while working on the erection of a 66-story high Buddha statue. On the advice of the Imperial Chaplain (who appears as a talking deer, naturally), the Empress releases the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from prison, who had been jailed for opposing her rise to the throne. Dee was close to the Empress’ husband, the Emperor, who died under suspicious circumstances. Assisted by the albino swordsman Minister Pei (Deng Chao) and the Empress’ security officer Jing’er (starlet Li Bingbing), Dee uncovers an intricate conspiracy that relies on phosphorous emitting beetles and a face-morphing doctor named Donkey Wang.

Jumping from setpiece to setpiece, Tsui never lets the pace flag, although the set design shifts from the brilliantly gothic “Phantom Bazaar”, a foggy netherworld of rotting wood and noxious swamp, to the cartoon-y CG of the group shots outside the Empress’ mansion. In the first edition of Planet Hong Kong (2000), David Bordwell described Hark’s style as, “an exercise in extremes – manic knockabout, brutal violence, sentiment, irony, in-jokes. Period detail jostles superhero fantasy, lush costumes are swathed in fake fog, dazzling special effects are compromised by banal wirework. This is the man who told his scriptwriters to make something new happen every three minutes.” It is exhilarating and exhausting, inventive and chintzy. Even Sammo Hung’s fight choreography in Detective Dee swings from extremes – there is the “banal wirework” that Bordwell complains about, but also a strikingly original fight scene set in the Phantom Bazaar. The Imperial Chaplain shows up as a spectre in a brass-mask, a malevolent monster from a Peking Opera, perhaps. Filmed in menacing low light, the three investigators pin down the shape-shifter, only to have it wriggle away and morph into more nightmarish forms, from Opera villain to a glowing stingray-like beast, and then ultimately into a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion death-bird.

That I had to conceive of such phrases speaks to the child-like joys present in Detective Dee. It’s the kind of serial style adventure that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have been attempting to recapture for decades. Dee lacks their polish, but makes up for it with its delirious imagination and complete lack of self-consciousness – an eager-to-please delight that would slot right in next to a screening of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or Daredevils of the Red Circle. There is no higher compliment.