Tsui Hark is like my bad boyfriend. I used to be so in love with him, and every one of his movies was wonderful and without flaw. As far as I’m concerned, he made the world’s greatest movie (PEKING OPERA BLUES) and the rest of his filmography is a good argument for why the human race should be allowed to continue (THE CHINESE FEAST, GREEN SNAKE, SHANGHAI BLUES). We had such beautiful times together and then, after 1996′s THE BLADE he became inconsistent. His attention wandered. His movies felt…lesser. With each new disappointment I vowed never to let him hurt me again, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stay away. I kept going back and he kept hurting me, and what had been a beautiful marriage became a painful ordeal.
“Wait, I can’t decide how best to
disappoint Grady in this scene.”
By now I dread Tsui Hark movies as one dud after another flops off the screen and into my lap like cold, dead fish: THE LEGEND OF ZU, XANDA, TRIANGLE, MISSING, ALL ABOUT WOMEN, and more that are unmentionable (*shudder* BLACK MASK 2 *shudder*). But now he’s made DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME and somehow I found myself in Toronto, sitting in an auditorium at 9am in the morning and waiting for it to start with a cold feeling of dread uncoiling in my stomach.
By the time the end credits rolled, I was feeling better than I’d felt since 1996. DETECTIVE DEE is the best Tsui Hark movie in 14 years, and while it’s too uncertain of itself to join the ranks of his classics, it’s a solid b-list entry in his career, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with WE’RE GOING TO EAT YOU, A BETTER TOMORROW III and THE SWORDSMAN. It’s also, fittingly, the 50th film from Tsui’s Film Workshop, which has reshaped the Hong Kong film industry, and it’s a sign that, like grandpa getting a mail order bride, there’s some fight left in the old boy yet.
A Chinese/Hong Kong co-production, DETECTIVE DEE is a straight-up Sherlock Holmes movie. Wu Zeitan, China’s only female empress, is about to be coronated and she’s celebrating as only a Chinese emperor can: by building a massive, towering, statue of herself as the Buddha. And when I say massive, I mean that this statue could easily dangle the Statue of Liberty on its knee like a baby. However, as Jay-Z observed, there are a lot of haters out there and court officials are spontaneously combusting, bursting into CGI flames before the eyes of horrified bystanders and that’s destabilizing the regime and spreading panic and terror over the court like creamy peanut butter. Chances for a hassle-free coronation? 50% and falling.
Not-quite Empress Wu figures that a problem this knotty, right on the eve of her coronation, requires a nuclear solution and so she orders disgraced official, Dee Renjie, released from prison where she put him eight years previously for opposing her move from Empress Consort (wife of the emperor) to Empress Dowager and regent (ruler in everything but name). Detective Dee comes out of prison looking like a giant hairball but before long he’s cleaned up, wearing phallic hats and applying his giant brain and deductive reasoning to clues. He pegs the supposed curse of the Phantom Flame as a special kind of poisoning and starts pulling on the strings of the giant sweater that is the Imperial Court, and it all unravels in his hands. Whoops.
The script is by Taiwanese writer and director Chen Kuofu who also directed DOUBLE VISION and THE MESSAGE, both of them also paranoid, twisty thrillers, as well as writing IF YOU ARE THE ONE, China’s biggest hit romance of all time. Despite the laughably mangled subtitles in DETECTIVE DE you still get the gist of the juggling he’s doing: Detective Dee and Empress Wu engage in pleasant conversation that conceals deadly serious threats, Dee and one of his assigned assistants, Pei the sadistic albino, pretend to accuse each other of plotting murder to confuse a hidden eavesdropper, but then it turns out that they’re actually accusing each other of plotting murder but then again maybe they’re just acting after all. And just as the subtitles are a throwback to the fractured subs of early 90′s Hong Kong movies, this film is a throwback to that era in Tsui Hark’s career.
Sammo Hung, who would get stents put in his heart after wrapping production on DEE, does the choreography and it’s not a comfortable fit. Largely airborne, the action is the kind of flying, fluttering, flapping flights of surreal fancy that were the trademark of Tsui’s longtime collaborator, Ching Siu-tung, and Sammo’s muscular brand of fisticuffs don’t quite mesh. The blows are hard, the kicks are fast, but the lighter-than-air soaring feels earthbound. Which may be the point. Throughout the movie, supernatural explanations for the proceedings are thrown around like midgets in an underground dwarf-tossing bar, but the audience knows that these spooky suggestions are just big old balloons of superstition that Detective Dee will soon pop with his sharp logic and reasoning. There is no curse, there are no mysteries, you can do whatever you want to the sacred banners – the only retribution you’ll face is that of men, not gods. This is the Chinese fantasy film brought down to earth.
And except for the army of killer, talking deer, it all feels a lot like Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal fictional detective, and it also feels a lot like SHERLOCK HOLMES, the blockbuster Guy Ritchie movie starring Robert Downey Jr., right down to the nods to steampunk and the finale inside a giant bank of ancient gears and antique machinery. Tsui Hark has never been shy about appropriating bits and pieces from other movies and giving them a Chinese spin and while he does that here with Sherlock Holmes, it’s forgivable because what he smuggles in is so subversive.
Early in the movie, when Andy Lau playing Detective Dee is released from prison, he and his blind cell mate comment that being released isn’t such a big deal, Andy/Dee isn’t actually going anywhere different. The person doing the releasing is obviously annoyed by this and protests that they’re in prison and now they’re getting out – it’s irrefutable logic. Andy and his cellmate crack up laughing: the world is a prison, they say. At least where they are now they can see the bars. It’s an eerie, unnerving little scene and it echoes through the rest of the movie and I would guess that this is what’s on Tsui Hark’s mind. He’s said in the past that the future of Hong Kong film is to construct a truly Chinese cinema, which means working with Mainland China, and DETECTIVE DEE is a co-production with the Mainland via the massively successful Huayi Brothers company. And that’s Tsui Hark’s own personal prison.
Hong Kong/Mainland co-productions are bound by a number of restrictions which Tsui Hark has run up against before. The script must be approved by the government, the supernatural must not play a part in the story, the casting must be split fairly between Mainland and foreign actors. Every film of Tsui’s originates from a seed that is often rooted in his own life and is reflected in how the film itself is made, and after making four major Chinese/Hong Kong co-productions in the last nine years (LEGEND OF ZU, SEVEN SWORDS, ALL ABOUT WOMEN and MISSING) and having to deal with the Mainland’s crazy restrictions in terms of content, you might think he’s knows a little something about imprisonment, because that’s what DETECTIVE DEE is all about.
Chinese starlette Li Bingbing turns in a career-redefining performance as Jing’er, the Empress’s favorite servant who’s as adept with serving dinner as she is with a whip, but hanging over her is the knowledge that as a woman she exists only at the pleasure of the Empress, and if the Empress’s support is withdrawn she would be instantly destroyed. She’s a prisoner of the Empress’s favor. The other major character in the film, Pei (Deng Chao), is an albino and his freakish appearance is its own kind of prison. Dee himself served time in prison, and one of the film’s other main characters, played by Tony Leung Kar-fai, was also a jailbird who was only released to work on the Empresses ginormous statue.
Everything in this movie is restricted, bound by laws and hierarchy, by ritual and observance, by gender and status. An underground city of rejects who never see the sun are no less prisoners of their low class status than Jing’er is a prisoner of her gender. Donkey Wang (one of the best names in the subtitles, but a mistranslation) is trapped in an identity not his own, as are several other characters. But the biggest prisoner of all is Carina Lau, playing the Empress Wu in her first film in 4 years.
DETECTIVE DEE is, more than anything, Tsui Hark’s attempt to rehabilitate the Empress Wu who is generally regarded by historians as an example of what goes wrong when a woman is in charge. She interrupted the Tang Dynasty to take over China and start her own Dynasty, ruling as emperor from 690 – 705 (although she had been the power behind the throne for over 20 years before that) and she was finally deposed in a coup that saw her ineffective son made the next Tang Emperor. Although she executed and tortured many of her opponents during her rule, she’s also viewed as having come around by the end and not been a total creep (a lot of this rehabilitation is due to the efforts of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who led a campaign to make Empress Wu look better during the Cultural Revolution in an attempt to pave her way to leadership after Mao died). In Chinese history, when Empress Wu is said to have mellowed over time, this is largely attributed to the influence of Di Renjie (Detective Dee). The backstory between the two of them is much as it’s reflected in the movie: he was a favored court official who opposed her rule and was exiled, then promoted back to the court when she needed his big old brain to help run the country.
In DETECTIVE DEE, Empress Wu is the biggest prisoner of all. Bound by her duty and by the bloody actions necessary for her to maintain power in a sea of heavily armed men who are all just waiting for her to make a single misstep so they can overthrow her rule, everything she does carries a double meaning and her actions are often forced upon her. Resplendent in red (a color Tsui associates with arrogance and power) she goes from being a remote but powerful figurehead at the start of the film to someone who comes alive once Dee enters the scene. He’s her intellectual equal, someone who sees the bars of their prison the same as she does and who acts accordingly, and she respects him for that (when the real life Die Renjie died, the Empress was devastated). But as the movie progresses and she ascends to the throne, her face become a mask, her duty becomes a millstone and her power becomes her chains. It would be hard to imagine a worse fate than being the Empress of China, knowing that there are hundreds of people who would love to poison you for any number of reasons and that most of them are pretending to be your most faithful servants.
DETECTIVE DEE is also the movie in which Tsui Hark returns to one of his greatest themes: it’s a man’s world, and gender is the trap that none of us can ever escape. And it’s no accident that he has cast Carina Lau in the role of Empress Wu – a woman who was no better or worse an Emperor than many others but who was ultimately undone because she dared to simultaneously have a vagina and exercise power. Carina Lau has been a huge star in Hong Kong since the early 80′s, appearing in as many quality productions as she has mass entertainment. But an actress in Hong Kong is always vulnerable because she’s a woman, and during the filming of Wong Kar-wai’s DAYS OF BEING WILD in the early 90′s, Lau was abducted by triads, stripped naked, photographed and, according to some, raped (she denies having been raped, and has expressed her thanks to her captors for not doing so). She was released a few hours later.
In 2002, the photographs of her bound, nude and terrified were published in EastWeek magazine sparking a huge outcry. If she hadn’t been raped before, she was being raped now – her dignity, status and privacy being stripped from her randomly and for reasons no one could understand. Adding insult to injury, the owner of the magazine was Albert Yeung, a wealthy businessman with some shady connections whom some say was behind her abduction in the first place. Lau says she was abducted because she refused to appear in a movie for a certain producer, and Yeung was getting his film company off the ground at the time, adding fuel to the rumors of his involvement. Nanshun Shi, Tsui Hark’s wife and business partner, spoke out on behalf of Carina during the ordeal in 2002, and Lau has handled it as best as one could, but it was a gruesome experience. Then, in 2005, she had a run-in with TVMart, the home shopping network. She was appointed CEO of the company, largely because TVMart wanted her image and contacts, but her business decisions resulted in huge losses and she was summarily and publicly removed after less than a year.
Casting an actress who has twice been used and victimized by the business world where men still call most of the shots, is a neat trick on Tsui Hark’s part. By casting her, he is allowing Empress Wu’s situation, known to every Chinese schoolchild, to reflect on the troubled career of the actress playing her, known to anyone who keeps up with the gossip mags. The Empress is the celebrity and the celebrity is the Empress – it’s a way of saying, “Empresses: they get used, abused and tossed aside…just like us! And look, we’re still doing it.” DETECTIVE DEE ends with one of those rote affirmations of Chinese power and sovereignty that seem to end all Mainland historical epics and you can tell by how boring this scene is that Tsui’s heart isn’t really in it. He awards the Empress a little more agency than she normally gets, proffering that she willingly stepped aside after her job of bringing peace to China was done, rather than the far more likely situation that she was deposed and allowed to step aside or else. But beyond that, it’s a scene that sticks out like a sore thumb for how static and passionless it plays.
But Hong Kong filmmakers are too good at telling stories and too slick at making movies to let Mainland content restrictions call the shots without taking subtle jabs. Like Jackie Chan’s LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, DETECTIVE DEE’s finale uses filmmaking itself to sound an ambiguous note. As a voice-over reads out the glorious achievements of the Empress and crows about the restoration of the Tang Dynasty after she abdicated the throne, we see Carina Lau as Wu, from a distance. Wrapped in the heavy robes of state she sits stiff and lifeless on her throne, just another decorative object on the set, just another pretty picture, a statue devoid of animation. They don’t call them the “trappings” of power for nothing. She’s a prisoner, bound and restricted by her office and her gender as tightly as Tsui Hark is bound by the restrictions and compromises of making movies in Mainland China. They’re both prisoners, but at least Tsui gets to say something about it.
(I could go on and on about Tsui Hark, and sometimes I do. If you can’t get enough of what I have to say about him, you can read the profile of Tsui that I wrote for Senses of Cinema’s “Great Directors” series, or you can read the very long, annotated interview I did with him for Film Comment when the New York Asian Film Festival gave him two lifetime achievement awards – one for all the films he’s made so far, and one for all the films he hasn’t made yet.)