狄仁杰之通天帝國 (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 action.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 ShangguanJing'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 giant manta homages the Columbia Tristar Godzilla, from its diet of fish to tearing up a dock. It also channels the Kraken from Pirates of the Caribbean when it tears into navy ships.
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.