This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Detective Dee is a sleuth in China during the Tang Dynasty, circa 690. Like Sherlock Holmes, he based his detection largely on acute observation. He became famous in 17 mystery novels by Robert van Gulik, and now here he is in an extravaganza by Tsui Hark, a master of the choreography of action. "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is a bewitching fantasy.
The empress Wu Zetian is about to become the first woman to ascend the Imperial Throne, but powerful forces scheme against her. A woman as head of state was no more thinkable in China in 690 than it is in America today. The construction of a towering statue of a giant Buddha is being hurried toward completion before her coronation day, when progress is interrupted by the spontaneous human combustion of one of its designers. Much as I persist in doubting it, such a form of death is allegedly possible, but surely there is no precedent for a series of them at such a touchy time.
It appears to be the perfect crime, if it is a crime. The victims combust in full view with no one nearby. There are of course no murder weapons. The cause is unknown, although it seems to happen in sunlight. This is a case for the greatest investigator in the land, and so Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) summons Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from the imperial prison, whence she cast him some years ago. As heroes in such situations often do, Detective Dee is forgiving, is still loyal to her and has apparently only improved his skills during confinement.
Now the stage is set for an epic of martial-arts action on a lavish scale, using vast sets which are both real and CGI. Tsui Hark is a genius of this genre, going back to the "Chinese Ghost Story" movies circa 1990 and nearly 60 other films, including "The Swordsman" and "Once Upon a Time in China" and its sequels. This film may represent the largest budget in his career, and one wonders how much of that went into the bizarre hair stylings of the empress.