Way back in my misspent youth (spent watching telly, mostly), there was one of those midday movies on the box that captured my imagination. Titled Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, the film was, to my young mind, cheeky, fun, spooky, and a tantalising glimpse into a world I had never thought of: the China of over a thousand years ago.
Years later I stumbled across Barry Hughart’s terrific and delightful trilogy of novels of a China ‘that never was’. Commencing with ‘Bridge of Birds’, the series’ main characters were the philosophical detective Master Li and his assistant Number Ten Ox. Magical, fantastic mystery fiction, the first novel won the World Fantasy Award, and, between that odd TV movie and this series of novels, can be found the beginnings of my love of Asian cinema. I fell for those 80s Chinese ghost and vampire films, re-discovered the joys of a good kung fu flick, and found my way into the pleasures of Hong Kong thrillers.
So seeing that Tsui Hark had turned his hand to a Detective Dee story was always going to set a spark in my critical nether regions. Oh yeah, I thought, bring it on.
Background stuff, for those who don’t know what the bejesus I am talking about. Judge (Detective) Dee is based on a real historical figure, name of Di Renjie, a 7th Century magistrate of the Tang court who lurked about solving mysteries and the like. Now I must confess my complete lack of knowledge of either the medieval Chinese tales collected under the title ‘Cases of Judge Dee’, nor the fictionalised Judge Dee stories of Robert Van Gulik. More’s the pity. So I have no idea of the lineage that Hark’s film draws on, if at all. But then I’ve not read ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ neither, but I still enjoyed Red Cliff, so here goes nothing …
First up, it’s a colourful film, shot in that saturated colour style favoured by film makers who want to give an exotic, yet fantastic unrealistic gleam to their movie (think Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy series, or pretty much anything by Zhang Yimou). And, more importantly for this type of film, it revels in its own daftness, with fire beetles and a talking deer only the start of a fine madness.
The plot seems simple enough too: Dee, after imprisonment and a bit of a reputation for being a thinker, is enlisted by the very Empress whose rule he opposed to help her find out who is sabotaging the building of a giant Buddha figure she has commissioned. Mostly by causing workers to internally combust.
Along the way his investigations are (sort of) joined by Shangguan Wan’er, another real historical figure, here the Empress’s bodyguard, and Pei Donglai, a rather mysterious albino figure who has taken the old X-Files maxim of ‘Trust No One’ to extreme lengths.
They are likable and intriguing characters. Andy Lau plays Dee with a lean, febrile intensity, Deng Chau as Pei is terrific, and Li Bingbing as Shangguan is alluringly odd. But the film treats its characters rather curtly, especially Pei, who is built up and (spoiler alert!) disposed of too abruptly. And as for Dee himself, the film never quite finds the right note of how to present him, and he ends up a little too dour, and not detective-y enough. A bit more of a dash of swashbuckle and wit in his character would not have gone astray, and maybe something more in the slightly strained but curious relationship he has with the Empress (played wonderfully by Carina Lau).
Sure the film’s flaws seem insignificant when its intent is to present a fast paced, exuberant, fun film and Detective Dee certainly works on that front. Even the fisticuff-biffo action is pretty sweet, especially the last fight scene inside the giant Buddha.
But the unravelling of the mystery is not a speck on your average Agatha Christie, neither clever nor all that well explained. Think Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes for a similar kind of quasi-magical historical romp, where at least the reveal, also told in flashbacks to the ‘clues’, was clever in a rather crazed way.
But I am being picky. The film was enough of a joy that its running time was gone in a blink. There’s a hint of a sequel in the end and here’s hoping Tsui Hark follows through, because this sort of film, action-magic-mystery-history thingummy, is a rarity at best, and certainly rarely done recently with such happy zest and imagination.