Saturday, December 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #17: The Return of the Maestro

by Lisa Morton

Back in the early '90s - in those distant days of yore when movies came on VHS tapes - a friend loaned me a couple of Hong Kong flicks with that usual adjuration of, "You've got to see these!" The movies were both directed by John Woo - THE KILLER and BULLET IN THE HEAD - and yeah, I was pretty knocked out, especially by THE KILLER and its insanely charismatic star Chow Yun-fat. Not long after that, a Santa Monica theater started running recent Hong Kong flicks - a new double feature on every weekend - and I decided to check out a few. Well, if I'd liked the two Woo bullet ballets, that was nothing compared to how smitten I was by the glorious visions of GREEN SNAKE and THE EAST IS RED and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and A CHINESE GHOST STORY.
Imagine my surprise when, upon doing a little research (even the internet was still somewhat primitive in those days), I discovered that all of the films I'd most loved - including THE KILLER - had one man in common: Tsui Hark (Tsui produced THE KILLER and also Woo's seminal breakthrough A BETTER TOMORROW).
Well, you probably know some of the rest. I became obsessed with Tsui's astonishing visual style, his editing, and his use of women. I began tracking down whatever information I could on him and his films. I put together a website, which eventually became the first book published on his work. I spent a week in Hong Kong with him, while he was editing his 2000 thriller TIME AND TIDE, and I was delighted to discover that he was as fascinating, complex, and unpredictable as his movies.
And then the rest of the first decade of the new millennium passed...and Tsui's career seemed to be in turmoil.

TIME AND TIDE was a wild ride, a dynamite little piece of pop culture...but he followed it with a string of fantasies (LEGEND OF ZU, MASTER Q 2001, BLACK MASK 2: CITY OF MASKS, TSUI HARK’S VAMPIRE HUNTERS) that ranged from mildly amusing to material that looked like a manic depressive's nightmares. 2005's much-heralded SEVEN SWORDS was an interesting experiment, but a failed experiment nonetheless. His 2008 ghost movie MISSING was...well, let's just drop the subject right here. As Asian movie investment has become harder to find over the last few years, it started to look as if Tsui's career might be over, killed by a combination of changes to Hong Kong's film industry and his own hyper-kineticism gone insanely astray.
I'm thrilled to report that rumors of the demise of Tsui Hark's career and his unique genius have been greatly exaggerated, and DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME proves that his talents are alive and well.
Part mystery, part historical epic, part martial arts fantasy, part political commentary and part horror film, DETECTIVE DEE is undeniably a Tsui Hark work, complete with a few sweet nods to his past, but it's also tightly focused and paced to perfection; the frantic speed that completely derailed something like BLACK MASK 2 is thankfully gone.
Set around the coronation of China's first empress, Wu (Carina Lau), the plot centers on a series of mysterious deaths that seem to be spontaneous human combustion. Only the wily Detective Dee (Andy Lau) can solve the crimes, but he's been in prison for the past eight years, put there after he opposed the very notion of a female ruler. Released from prison to ironically serve Empress Wu, Dee is assigned two assistants - the Empress's right-hand woman Jing’er (Li Bing-bing) and albino military advisor Pei (Deng Chao). The mystery also involves the construction of a massive statue of the Empress, scheduled to be completed on coronation day, and leads to such strange and spectacular locations as the underground "Phantom Bazaar" and an isolated monastery filled with murderous deer (!). Alliances and sympathies shift, every new clue sheds light on not just the murders but also on politics, and magic vies with science for control of China's people.

Tsui has long been interested in a remake of his 1992 DRAGON INN (which he produced, and which was itself a remake of King Hu’s 1966 classic), and there are a few scenes and themes here which seem to echo that film, especially a playful fight in an inn which involves the participants being stripped and reclothed. Li Bing-bing’s Jing’er is certainly the inheritor of Tsui’s earlier female warriors as played by Brigitte Lin; if Li doesn’t quite possess Lin’s astonishing charisma (or glare!), she’s still a worthy successor. She’s graceful, strong, passionate, and determined, and makes for one of the best female protagonists in a Hong Kong movie in years.
In fact, DETECTIVE DEE brings a few of Tsui’s interests from the past – especially the way society treats women – into the light in a way he hasn’t really done before. In one brilliant scene, he intercuts a discussion between Wu and Dee about what she’s had to do to ascend to the throne with images of courtesans staging a provocative dance for male customers. Carina Lau, whose long career includes nearly every Wong Kar-wai film and a stunning performance as a female triad boss in INFERNAL AFFAIRS II and III, is both sympathetic and conniving as Wu, believably investing her with the fortitude the real woman certainly must have possessed.
And of course if DETECTIVE DEE had nothing else going for it, it could still coast on the skills and appeal of lead Andy Lau. Lau, who started his career as just one more good-looking Hong Kong pop singer making movies, has graduated to become Hong Kong’s number one actor. He’s perfect here, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part.

Which isn’t to say that DETECTIVE DEE is all star power and social commentary – it’s also got some startling fight scenes (choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung), a gorgeous score by Peter Kam, and the most eye-charring production design of any flick in years. The fact that some of the CGI is a bit shaky doesn’t seriously detract from the sheer visual impact of shot after shot. This whole movie is suitable for framing.
In addition to breathtakingly lovely shots of night-time horse rides through showering flower petals and the magnificent gowns of the royal court, the film also has some of the creepiest images to show up in a Tsui Hark movie in the last decade-and-a-half. At one point our heroes venture into the underground, candlelit “Phantom Bazaar”, where they pass a retinue of ghouls mid-feast and a six-armed musician before encountering “Donkey Wang”, a medical expert who Dee believes can help solve the crimes (Donkey Wang, who transforms halfway through the movie, is played by two old Hong Kong pros, Richard Ng and Teddy Robin, the latter of whom starred in a number of Tsui’s earliest comedies). There are also some seriously icky bugs (which the frequently bizarre subtitles persist in calling “fire turtles”), a deadly man-sized puppet, and Dee picking his way through charred human remains.
At present, I believe DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME is only available as an import DVD. This gorgeous and exciting film (which scored big at the Venice Film Festival) deserves a theatrical release in the U.S., although it’s unlikely we’ll get it. Whatever…do yourself a favor and buy the DVD, then pass it around to your friends…because Tsui Hark is back, and you know you’ve missed him

--Lisa Morton