It’s 689 A.D. There’s “a spooky pandemonium” in China. “All hell was about to break lose,” tempts an opening title. Seven years a regent, Wu (Carina Lau) is about to ascend the throne as empress. Portents include supernatural assassinations via spontaneous incineration. Veteran Tsui Hark directs a high-energy court intrigue indebted to an eighteenth-century genre of Chinese detective fiction revived by a twentieth-century Dutch diplomat. Screenwriter Chang Chia-lu draws an existential detective akin to peers in American noir. Dee (Andy Lau) deals with sleeping smoke, talking deer and beetles weaponized with yellow phosporous from the Infinity Monastery. Sammo Hung directs signature action sequences set in wondrously detailed CGI cityscapes. Workers rush to complete a towering statue of Buddha overlooking the seat of power. A blow against the empire is built into that engineering marvel with horse-powered elevators. This Tang dynasty Wudonit wins points for subversive asides on the smoke-and-mirrors tricks of statecraft. With Bingbing Li, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova. 122m. (Bill Stamets)
“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.