Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame ★★★★

"Detective Dee, you're so pathetic. The world is so big yet you can't fit in. Everyone wants to kill you."

Richard Ng digitally turns into Teddy Robin, fulfilling a dream/nightmare of every 80s Hong Kong comedy fan.

Is there any difference between Zhang Yimou's Hero, generally read (and denounced) as an excuse for autocracy on the grounds of national unity and cohesion, and this film's argument that, bad as Carina Lau's Empress Wu is (and she's very bad indeed), she's still necessary to keep the nation whole and strong (because apparently "civilization is on the brink of collapse")? Is it any better for Andy Lau's Dee to give the Empress a lecture on justice and then walk away, retiring into the sunset than for Jet Li's Nameless assassin to give the Emperor a lecture on unity and then walk away, to face certain death?

The Detective Dee character is defined as anti-authoritarian (he begins the film in jail for opposing the Empress's seizure of power), which would seem to undercut the less savory implications of the allegory. But doesn't that just make it worse when he essentially gives her his blessing to take over? A final title card informs us that she only held power for 15 years, strengthening the country and then honorably resigning, which is great, but the benevolent dictator voluntary walking away from absolute power is a marked rarity in world history.

A perplexing film from Tsui Hark, who usually mixes more subversion in with his nationalism, deflating its more dangerous implications with punk humor and transnational cosmopolitanism (something he does in this film's prequel, Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon).

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