(English title: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
) is a 2010 People's Republic of China/Republic of China co-production. The title character is loosely based on the real-life Tang Dynasty magistrate Di Renjie, who also inspired the Judge Dee
novels and short stories. The film is not based on those novels however, and relies primarily on wuxia
The plot takes place shortly before the ascension of Wu Zetian, China's first female emperor, to the throne. An enormous Buddha statue is being built for the occasion when the director of its construction mysteriously bursts into flames and dies. The investigators are baffled until Wu Zetian calls on Detective Dee, a man whom she imprisoned eight years previously for opposing her rule. With the imperial agent Shangguan Jing'er
, and policeman Pei Donglai
, Dee has until the coronation starts
to solve the mystery of the phantom flame.
A second movie with the subtitle Rise of the Sea Dragon
was released in 2013. It is a Prequel
, with time shifted actors
for returning characters (Dee and Shatuo) except Empress Wu, focusing on Dee's first case in Luoyang. With the residing police chief Yuchi
in his way, and a new ally Shatuo
on his side, Dee must come to the rescue of Ruiji
, who is seemingly targeted by both a nomadic cult and a reptilian creature from the depths. Unfortunately the capital has an even bigger concern. Big enough to sink an Imperial fleet, as a matter of fact.
This movie has examples of:
- Absurdly Spacious Sewer: The Ghost City is supposed to be what remains of the original city, which sank into the ground as centuries went by. But it looks like a maze of giant, flooded underground canyons.
- Action Girl: Jing'er might just be the most capable fighter in the entire film.
- Anti-Villain: The Empress gives China peace, order, and prosperity - the hard way.
- Artistic License – Ships: The ships in the Luoyang harbor look unrealistic for the time period.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Ummayyad ambassador speaks modern-day Spanish that Chinese audiences obviously wouldn't know/care about.
- Bittersweet Ending: Dee's heart has found peace, but his love-interest and Cowboy Cop partner are killed, his best friend betrayed him, and the less-than-virtuous Empress Wu Zetian has succeeded the throne. Oh, and he can't go outside in the sun ever again, or else he'll burst into flames!
- Black and Grey Morality: Wu Zetian is hardly a virtuous ruler, and none knows it better than Dee, who has spent eight years in jail for opposing her rule. But the conspirators are worse.
- "Blind Idiot" Translation: At times the English subtitles leave much to be desired, with imperfect grammar and the use of some peculiar jargon.
- Bodyguard Crush: Jing'er is quite devoted to Wu Zetian.
- Calling Your Attacks: Dee, when wielding his sword-breaking mace.
- Chekhov's Gun: A 66-yard-tall one.
- Jing'er doesn't like anyone touching her neck.
- Conspicuous CGI: Occasionally. The Transformation Sequence comes to mind.
- Costume Porn: Dear lord, the Empress!
- Dangerously Close Shave: When Dee hands Jing'er a razor and asks her to give him a shave, she obviously considers slicing his throat. Dee has to dissuade her by quipping "My beard is up here".
- Dead Man Writing: The last clue, a buckle indicating where an important document has been hidden, is given to Dee by a dying man.
- Deadpan Snarker: Dee, of course. Donglai occasionally strays into this territory when he's teasing Jing'er.
- Determinator: After getting impaled multiple times by spring-loaded javelins, Jing'er still manages to drag a grown man into the tree tops to hide, then survive the long journey on horseback to the palace before finally bleeding to death.
- Doomed by Canon: Whoever started the plot has zero chance of succeeding, because history records that Wu Zetian did indeed become Empress of China.
- Dwindling Party: By the time the movie ends only a handful of named characters survive.
- Dyeing for Your Art: Donglai's actor even bleached his eyelashes to play a convincing albino.
- Everything's Better with Spinning: Dee's mace has a rotating part which allows him to break metal when spun.
- Exotic Detective
- Femme Fatale: The Empress, particularly in her younger years, but she's still got it. Jing'er tries to be one.
- Genre Roulette: Is this a wuxia movie, historical drama, film noir detective story, political thriller, or absurdist comedy? Being that this is a Tsui Hark work, yes.
- God Save Us from the Queen!: Although the entire movie hinges on Dee's efforts to protect the Empress, she is arguably as big of a villain as the assassins.
- Great Detective: Dee is based on an actual historical figure, but his status as an ancient Chinese Sherlock Holmes is based on the 18th century novel 狄公案, and in the West on Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories.
- Heroic Albino: Pei Donglai is this, albeit leaning toward Anti-Hero status.
- Historical-Domain Character: Di Renjie and Wu Zetian were real people, and Jing'er is based on a real person. Probably none of them were capable of Wire Fu in real life, however.
- Hot-Blooded: Jing'er and Donglai, in contrast to the cool and pragmatic Dee.
- Improbable Age: Donglai seems quite young for a minister of justice, though his (much older) superior did die suddenly in the middle of an investigation.
- Interesting Situation Duel: A duel in an underground lake, for starters. Dee's fight with Shatuo where he can't be in the sunlight or he'll burst into flame.
- Impossibly Cool Weapon: Dee's mace has a rotating part which generates vibrations which allow him to find the weak point in an opponent's weapon as he sweeps it along the blade, so that he can strike there and break it. The mace was given to him by the previous Emperor, and symbolizes his role as a detective and truth-finder.
- Also the flying chainsaw robot (it's actually a puppet).
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Donglai is short-tempered, violent, and at one point makes a young widow faint by yelling at her, but he is shown to be very protective of Jing'er and one of the least corrupt characters in the story.
- Large Ham: The cop from the beginning. Also the unfortunate reader in the morgue.
- Man on Fire: The "phantom flame".
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The whole movie veers between rational historical fiction, and its own special brand of very, very weird.
- Monumental Damage / Weaponized Landmark: If almost 200 feet of statue-shaped metal doesn't count, nothing does.
- Obfuscating Disability: Dee fakes being blind while in prison.
- Perfect Poison: Since it causes you to spontaneously combust, there's not much forensic evidence left behind.
- Poisoned Weapons: Dee and Jing'er are attacked with a bevvy of poisoned arrows which provide an important clue.
- Punny Name: Donkey Wang. Yes. Technically, it's Dr. Donkey Wang.
- Redemption Equals Death: Shangguan Jing'er.
- Recycled In Space: Could be described as "Sherlock Holmes IN CHINA". Wu Zetian even acts a lot like Queen Victoria does in such stories.
- Sinister Minister: The mysterious Chaplain, who apparently doubles as both a prophet and assassin for the Empress.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: Dee and Jing'er, almost as soon as he's out of prison. A subversion, as this is staged as a way of getting close to him, which of course he sees right through.
- Spontaneous Human Combustion: The Phantom Flame. Of course, careful investigation shows that it's not at all spontaneous.
- Theres No Kill Like Overkill: The number of arrows fired at Dee and Jing'er would sink a boat.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Jing'er with virtually everyone. But mainly Dee.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: An important plot point hinges on a certain acupressure point that allows you to completely alter the shape of your face.
- We Have Reserves: The Empress tells Jing'er that to get power and stay in power you have to be willing to sacrifice anyone. Anyone.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Jing'er is the High Priest.
- Wire Fu: How most characters get around.
- In-universe, the heroes fight what looks like a flying robot with buzzsaws. It's revealed that it's actually a puppet, and they attack the wires holding it up.
- Wuxia: A fine modern example.
- You Have 48 Hours: Dee has until the coronation to solve the crime.
Rise of the Sea Dragon has examples of:
- Amplified Animal Aptitude: As if acknowledging this trope, the special horse given to Dee has a bad gallop speed to balance out its ability to swim.
- Body Horror: How have the Dondo created so many parasites? With live human hosts!
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Shatuo's sensei Imperial Physician Wang, who's grafted what looks like an orangutan hand in place of his own one for whatever reason, and the go-to miracle worker in this movie.
- Call Forward:
- The movie ends with Dee earning the Dragon Taming Mace.
- The plot point of the parasites partially explains why Shatuto is such an expert with them in the first movie.
- Kaiju: One of the two creatures tagged with the name of Sea Dragon.
- Late-Arrival Spoiler: The second movie, Rise of the Sea Dragon, is a Prequel instead of a regular sequel. Granted Dee survives the end of the first movie, but anything he does after this is going to be significantly harder... in the daytime.
- The Mole: That one constable who's been stuck with guard duty for years.
- Nice Hat: The Empress has some truly awe-inspiring headgear.
- Non-Indicative Name: Both the reptilian stalking Ruiji and the giant manta ray are called "Sea Dragon" at some point.
- Sherlock Scan: Dee's Charles Atlas Superpower, allowing him to find an Odd Name Out on the roster and thus target Shatuo as a potential ally.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Ruiji, who's either targeted by a dozen suitors only after her maidenhead, or getting sacrificed to the Sea Dragon, or targeted by the Empress herself simply because her birth country's at war with China.
- Super Drowning Skills: Everyone ribs Dee for being afraid of water, he claims he doesn't know how to swim.
- Time-Shifted Actor: Dee and Shatuo.
- Toilet Humor: The antidote to the parasites? Eunuch piss.
- Was Once a Man: Yuan Zhen is forcibly mutated into the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
- You Have 48 Hours: Yuchi is given 10 days to solve the mystery, Dee pleads to get a delay, and is given 24 hours.