Well this one is a bit of an honour. I have been slowly introduced to, and enjoyed immensely the films of Tsui Hark, both as a Director and as a Producer over the past 11 months or so, but up to now it has all been past glories – I finally get to see one of his films as it is released. In fact some of these movies have become the highlights of my movie collection. Yet there is a feeling that he has not actually worked on a decent film for nearly 15 years (I disagree a little, but I am no expert). But this one has been hailed as a return to form, and for my money I think the critics are correct.
ack in 690 AD, when Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to ascend officially to the Chinese Throne (after being the Regent for some time). This is being celebrated by the erection of a huge Buddha. When two officials connected with this construction mysteriously spontaneously combust in broad daylight, the Empress is forced to bring back Di Renjie (a.k.a Detective Dee, played by Andy Lau), a Court Official that she exiled some years before to solve the mystery. Dee is assisted and hampered in his task by the Empresses favourite aide Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bing Bing) and another investigator, the Albino Pei Donglai (Choa Deng).
The film is an interesting mix of Historical fact, a source novel and fantasy. Pretty much everyone in the film actually existed, but this is a fantasy world, a world of Phosphorus-soaked Beetles, of strange underground cities, of mystical Kung-Fu and where people are able to change their appearance via the use of acupuncture needles. You know, the sort of film where you have to suspend belief.
Conversely, at the core of the film is Dee, who is there to prick at the elements of mysticism, using his mind to work out the reality. Some have likened him to Sherlock Holmes, but I find he is more of a William of Baskerville, from “The Name of the Rose“. In this i mean he is not only grounded in the real world, but he is still accepting of the mystical properties of his environment. He also is able to deal with the physical nature of battles. Lau plays the role quietly, and I for one was actually quite impressed.
This is a Hark film though, and therefore has two of his hallmarks. The female characters are very strong – Li Bing Bing is able to be both headstrong, yet actually quite fragile; whilst Carina Lau is utterly wonderful as the Empress. This is a woman who has to struggle in a male-dominated society, and has been utterly bloodthirsty in her attempts to gain and maintain power. Yet at the same time, you get glimpses of the person underneath the amazing Hair Pieces -her relationship with Jing’er is well done, as his her more complex one with Dee. You sense a deeper relationship between the two in the past, which remains unspoken, but the audience knows.
And this is the other Hallmark of a Hark film – yes there is action and craziness and he never lets a film go quiet for too long, but he also is able to imbue a film with an emotional core. Yet again he manages to take some disparate characters and generate a sense of family. Halfway through the film I felt that this really could be a franchise, somewhat like “Once Upon a Time in China”, and although the events of the film’s conclusion may have made that difficult, I still have hope.
Let us be honest about it – the film has huge issues. The CGI is occasionally fantastic, but often quite awful. It just lacks polish. The pace of the film is a little askew, with some scenes being far too brief, and others a little too long. Too often Dee explains the solving of a mystery, without us seeing his methods, just later exposition. It also suffers “Big Star is actually the villain”-syndrome, and if I am spotting it, then I am sure much more astute viewers will be similarly unimpressed at the reveal. The action is also a little disappointing, it lacks the grace of other films, with the camera being set far too close.
And then of course there is that common fault with all modern Hong Kong films. You see these days, to get a big motion picture made, the Hong Kong Film Industry has to take money from mainland China. This means two thing. Firstly, some mainland actors have to be used. The second factor is more troubling – there has to be a message that relates to mainland China – how things are really fantastic there. Think the closing credits of “Ip Man”. This film also has a rather uncomfortable scene at the end – basically saying you can be authoritarian and cold blooded in leadership, but it is all for the glory of China. Hark does counter this by making the scene rather quiet and cold, but it does mean the film ends on a somewhat sombre note.
Yet despite all this, I thought it was a wonderful two hours. The mystery is interesting, and the acting great. Hark builds a world that I could fully believe in. The fact I wanted to know more, and was upset when two characters did not make the journey to the final credits talks volume to me. This film therefore gets Highly Recommended