Saturday, 12 March 2011


Director Tsui Hark is back on form with this fantasy historical mystery featuring Chinese folk hero Di Renji who was used by Robert van Gulik for his Judge Dee series of books.

The film opens with construction on an absolutely enormous hollow statue of Buddha which overlooks the royal palace. It has to be finished for the coronation of the Empress or heads (and probably other parts) will roll as she's a pretty ruthless sort of person. The building interrupted when two officials spontaneously self-combust. So, there's a complicated mystery to solve so who ya gonna call? As only one person has the brains and requisit skills to do it, there isn't much choice. Just one teensy little problem: he's been in prison for five years for stirring up trouble against the Empress who has a lot of rivals.

Needless to say, he's soon on the case, trusting no-one not even the beautiful Jing'er the Empress's right hand woman, or the albino official Pei who are supposed to be helping him. When not attempting to solve the mystery, he's fighting off assassination attempts and demonstrating superior martial arts skills. He's also a rationalist, solving the puzzle by science rather than superstition. However, this is a fantasy historical mystery movie so it's often fantasy science. We don't have any beetles which... Oops, nearly gave away something I shouldn't.

Dee's allies
This is a gorgeous film to look at with spectacular special effects and some great action sequences directed by Sammo Hung. Red herrings abound, many people have deep dark secrets they don't want finding out, Dee can't trust the Empress, or anyone, people are sometimes quite literally not who they seem. I will say one thing: despite all the trappings, the story plays fair when the villain is finally revealed (and has a spectacular fight with our hero) and Dee's deductions presented to the audience.

The only technical aspect which lets the film down somewhat is the subtitling -and I should add that this review is based on watching a Hong Long DVD. The translator doesn't have as good a command of English as he should, frequently getting tenses wrong. Also, contemporary slang is used which is somewhat jarring and together they tend to pull you out of the film. Good subtitling makes for a seamless viewing experience.
This is great fun, just not quite as good as Reign of Assassins.

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