The fourth Chinese film I have seen in Venice so far – and the first shown in competition - Tsui Hark’s Di Renjie zhi Tongtian diguo (Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame), is another expensive looking, high-octane blockbuster. Like Legend of the Fist and Reign of Assassins, the film is a showcase for martial arts skill and cleverly choreographed set-pieces (in this film, devised by sometime actor and director, Sammo Hung). Unlike those other movies, Di Renjie (as I will call it for the sake of brevity) is curiously a crime story: a detective “who-dunnit?” in the mould of Agatha Christie… if Agatha Christie set her books in ancient China and had a fondness for elaborate wire fu.
It is this detective element that keeps things fresh, as many of those genre conventions enter a new setting. The murders – which involve victims burning to death from the inside before crumbling in a pile of ash (an effect that’s fairly disturbing) – are investigated in a logical, Sherlock Holmes-esque fashion as the charismatic and capable detective Di (Andy Lau) dismisses spiritual and superstitious theories in exchange for fact and reason. He is a man outside of custom and culture, continually ignoring traditional protocol as he chases leads.
Di Renjie is extremely colourful, with Hark often throwing conventional wisdom out of the window and putting every colour possible on screen as he creates this fantasy world. One, like many Chinese stories, based on historical facts. Like his lead character, Hark generally eschews anything too outlandish in favour of plausibility. Wire fu effects are used, but in a more restrained way than usually seen. Even the grand towering Buddha statue, around which the investigation centres, is believable enough when you consider the existing wonders of ancient Chinese civilisation.
In contrast with its eye-popping colour palette, Di Renjie is also the most tonally serious of the three martial arts epics I’ve seen here. There aren’t too many gags, which isn’t to say it is an earnest bore but just that it doesn’t have any “wacky”, slapstick scenes or comedy characters. It is also the lightest on action, with less fighting in just over two hours of film than in the opening ten minutes of Legend of the Fist (still the best of the martial arts films shown).
But in spite of this, Di Renjie is never boring. The lead actors are watchable, the fights (when they come) are inventive and fast-paced, and the setting makes for an interesting twist on the detective genre. Angela Lansbury this ain’t.