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Film / Detective Dee

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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/ chancellor Di Renjie (played here by Andy Lau), 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 (Carina Lau), 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. With the supervising builder Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai) a dead end, 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 (Li Bingbing), and young policeman Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), Dee has until the coronation date 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 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.

A third film, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, was released in 2018 with the cast returning from Rise of the Sea Dragon.

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 usurped the throne. Oh, and he can't go outside in the sun ever again, or else he'll burst into flames! Regardless, before his self-imposed exile to the Phantom Bazaar, Dee makes the Empress promise she will rule her kingdom justly and return her throne to the Tang Dynasty when she retires.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Wu Zetian is hardly a virtuous ruler, and none know that better than Dee, who's spent eight years in jail for opposing her rule. But the conspirators are worse.
  • Black Market: After Shatuo suggests the poison that causes the combustions could be from a type of beetle called Fire Turtles, the investigators search for more information on the beetles at the Phantom Bazaar, a market that was built by criminals in parts of the city that had sunk into the ground.
  • "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.
  • But Now I Must Go: Justified. Dee declines Empress Wu's offer of joining her court and goes to the Phantom Bazaar since the poison he was doused in will kill him if he ever enters sunlight again.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Exotic Detective: Dee, of course.
  • Femme Fatale: The Empress, particularly in her younger years, but she's still got it. Jing'er tries to be one.
  • Foreshadowing: Jing'er is very sure that the red robed man is not the high priest, mainly because she is the high priest.
  • 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. note 
  • Historical Domain Character: Di Renjie and Wu Zetian were real people, and Jing'er is based on a real person (Shangguan Wan'er, who was Wu Zetian's secretary while she was emperor)note . 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.
  • The Marvelous Deer: The Empress's chaplain appears as a talking deer to let her know to find Dee.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The whole movie veers between rational historical fiction, and its own special brand of very, very weirdness.
  • Obfuscating Disability: When you first see Dee, he eyes appear clouded with white suggesting blindness but when a group of assassins attack, Dee pulls out fake white contact lens and reveals that he can see perfectly well.
  • 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.
  • Race Against the Clock: Dee has until the coronation to solve the crime.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Shangguan Jing'er.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: Could be described as "Sherlock Holmes (2009) IN CHINA". Wu Zetian even acts a lot like Queen Victoria does in such stories.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Several things in the plot turn out to be less mystical than they appear, but are still pretty unlikely.
    • The Phantom Flame is not a curse, but a Perfect Poison that causes victims to catch on fire when exposed to sunlight.
    • The Imperial Chaplain appears to be a talking deer, but is in fact a shapeshifter using ventriloquism to make it look like the deer is talking.
    • The fake Chaplain appears to have detachable, autonomous attack sleeves that conceal buzzsaw robots. They're actually impossibly complex marionettes on strings.
  • 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.
  • Sword Limbo: Jing'er limbos under a flying tree trunk throw at her by the red robed man.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The number of arrows fired at Dee and Jing'er would sink a boat.
  • Under City: The Phantom Bazaar is built in a city the subsided into the ground.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Jing'er with virtually everyone. But mainly Dee.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Empress Wu and Jing'er are implied to be lovers, despite they are clearly interest in male. During her final moment in Wu's arms, Jing'er asked the empress did she ever love someone, which she respond "yes" with an outright affectionate expression on her Ice Queen face.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: An important plot point hinges on a certain acupressure point that allows you to completely alter the shape of your face. For Chinese audiences, the impact is heightened by iconic character actor Richard Ng transforming into equally iconic character actor Teddy Robin. A Hollywood equivalent would be if Steve Buscemi ripped off a rubber mask to reveal himself as Christopher Walken.
  • 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.

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.
  • Kick the Dog: The Empress orders Ruiji executed simply because the country she came from is at war. When Dee offers his own life for hers if he doesn't catch the conspirators in a day, the Empress says if Dee fails she'll execute them both, and later makes it clear to Ruiji she's hoping Dee will fail.
  • 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 desk duty for years.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Both the reptilian stalking Ruiji and the giant manta ray are called "Sea Dragon" at some point.
  • Ocean of Adventure: Unlike the first film, the sequel is a maritime adventure set in the oceans around China, concluding with Dee and his crew fighting a stingray-esque monster.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sinister Stingrays: Rise of the Sea Dragon has Dee and his crew are assaulted by a giant stingray monster that destroys several ships and devours a few of his crew. Dee eventually defeats the monster by having men catapult loads of poisoned fish into its mouth.
  • 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.
  • Spectacular Spinning: Dee's mace has a rotating part which allows him to break metal when spun.
  • The Stinger: The Empress gets her own back when she makes our heroes drink the urine cure.
  • Stupid Evil: The kidnappers discuss their kidnapping plans on the street in broad daylight. Even without Dee's lip-reading skill, people can hear them anyways.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Everyone ribs Dee for being afraid of water, he claims he doesn't know how to swim.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The Dondo's plot centers around tainting Bird's Tongue Tea with deadly parasites. This particular blend of tea is sold exclusively to the Imperial Court, which drinks it in massive quantities, making it a decapitation strike on the entire government.
  • 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 Don't Want to Catch This

The Four Heavenly Kings has examples of:

  • Fainting: Dee fainted one time during the movie due to an illness.
  • Frame-Up: When trying to catch a disappeared Huan Tian who is seemingly attacking the royal guard, Yuchi stops the attacker, only to discover the attacker had his face. During the confusion, the attacker escapes and the real Yuchi is imprisoned.
  • Latex Perfection: Downplayed. Dee only uses the latex disguise on the bottom half of his face.
  • Man Hug: When Dee visits and subsequently frees the wrongfully imprisoned Yuchi, Yuchi proceeds to happily hug him.
  • Master of Illusion: The villains employ illusions and spells to trick and frighten their enemies and manipulate their behaviour.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Water Moon corners a half-naked Shatuo in the bathhouse, trying to get information from him. His coworkers walk in on them, thinking something else and quickly leave while grinning to Shatuo's dismay.
  • Orgy of Evidence: The break-in at the painter Leng's house was this, tipping Dee off that someone was planting evidence at the house to lure him there.
  • Perfect Poison: The poison that kills the painter Leng quickly was a fast-acting poison in a powder form.
  • Plot-Induced Illness: It's not really explained why or how Dee has an illness, other than for drama (Dee claims it's an illness of the mind afflicting the body). There is no further mention of it by the end of the movie.
  • Revenge: This was the main motivation of the Wind Warriors as their clan was hunted down by the Tang dynasty and many years later, they want the Emperor and Empress dead.
  • Working Through the Cold: Dee was inflicted with an unnamed illness throughout a good part of the film but he continued working despite Shatuo's concerns.