Dir: Tsui Hark. China. 2010. 122mins

Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame (Di Renije zhi Tongtian Diguo)

There’s a tasty idea in here, and its entertainingly executed: graft a detective story onto a historical martial arts actioner set during the Tang dynasty, and see what emerges. Director Tsui Hark has never been a less-is-more kind of guy, and the sheer abundance of plot threads and sumptuous, FX-enriched set pieces threatens to swamp the story at times.

The hyper-real artisanal quality of the computer graphics suits the style of a film that has a likeable period nonchalance to it.

But it all moves along at a cracking pace, and the film’s half serious, half tongue-in-cheek tone will endear it to Western audiences who bridle at the more self-important style of kung fu epic. Hark fans will also embrace his latest as a return to the classic supernatural kung fu territory that the director made his own in films such as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

In fact although budgeted at a lowish $13 million, Detective Dee may turn out to be a better performer than Hark’s previous martial arts bonanza, Seven Swords, which cost a fair bit more and yet underperformed both in Hong Kong and mainland China. The economies show through here in some of the CGI backdrop work, which at times is so artificial it looks like 3D animation. But while this may annoy the geeks, the hyper-real artisanal quality of the computer graphics suits the style of a film that has a likeable period nonchalance to it.

The action is set in the year 690 on the eve of the coronation of Empress Wu Zeitan (Carina Lau), China’s first female ruler. A huge, hollow stupa, or statue-temple of Buddha, is being built in front of the imperial court to glorify her reign; but while showing a foreign ambassador the view from the eye of the Buddha, a court officer suddenly bursts into flames.

Another spontaneous combustion soon follows – and in a court riven by plots, suspicions and internecine strife, the empress is keen to find the culprit. A court magician in the form of a talking stag advises her to send for courtier Di Renjie (Andy Lau) – anglicised as ‘Detective Dee’ – who was sentenced to hard labour seven years previously for criticising Wu for the way she seized power after the death of her husband the Emperor.

She does so, and appoints Lau to head the investigation – but being a wily and wary soul, sends her beautiful and martially talented protégée Jing-er (Bingbing) to watch over Dee. Also on the case is hotheaded albino court official and co-investigator Donglai (Chao), who gradually comes around to Dee as the latter proves his strength, intelligence and integrity.

The third main location - in addition to the Luoyang court and city, and the Escher-like interior of the giant Buddha statue with its struts and pulleys, wooden lifts and endless staircases  - is an underground city called the Phantom Market, where a ghostly nether people live in a network of caves.

Choreographed by Hong Kong maestro Sammo Hung, the film’s fight sequences are marked by Hark’s usual inventiveness; perhaps the best is also the simplest, a comedy-tinged fight-seduction sequence between feisty Jing-er and unflappable Dee, which morphs in seconds from sparring to foreplay to the two of them teaming up to repel a death squad attack.

Much was being made in Venice of Dee as a sort of Tang dynasty Sherlock Holmes, but in fact another Holmes derivative, William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose, is a better parallel: both men are smart forensic investigators who are part of and subject to the closed, hierarchical communities they’re holding up to scrutiny. The Tang court protocol and ceremony feel right (the credits include no less than two court etiquette consultants, as well as a sword design consultant), though costumes (especially those of the outlandishly-coiffed Empress) are closer to Alice in Wonderland than the historical record – and no worse for that.

Production companies: Huayi Brothers Media Corp, Film Workshop

International sales: Huayi Brothers Media Corp, www.huayimedia.com

Producer: Wang Zhonglei

Executive producers: Nansun Shi, Chen Kuofu

Screenplay: Zhang Jialu

Cinematography: Chan Chi Ying, Chan Chor Keung

Production design: James Chiu

Editor: Yau Chi Wai

Music: Peter Kam

Main cast: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Deng Chao