Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Film poster
Traditional 狄仁傑之通天帝國(臺:通天神探狄仁傑)
Simplified 狄仁杰之通天帝国
Directed by Tsui Hark
Produced by Tsui Hark
Nansun Shi
Peggy Lee
Screenplay by Chen Kuofu
Based on Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 
by Lin Qianyu
Starring Andy Lau
Carina Lau
Li Bingbing
Tony Leung Ka-fai
Deng Chao
Studio Huayi Brothers
Film Workshop
Distributed by Huayi Brothers
Emperor Entertainment Group
Release dates
  • 29 September 2010 (2010-09-29) (China)
  • 30 September 2010 (2010-09-30) (Hong Kong)
Running time 122 minutes
Country China
Hong Kong
Language Mandarin[1]
Budget US$20 million
Box office US$51,723,285[2]

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a 2010 Chinese-Hong Kong action mystery film directed and produced by Tsui Hark, and features art direction and fight choreography by Sammo Hung, and starring Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Deng Chao and Tony Leung Ka-fai.

The film tells the story of the fictional account of Di Renjie, one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang Dynasty.

Principal photography for Detective Dee began in May 2009; the film was shot at Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang, China. Detective Dee was released in China on 29 September 2010 and in Hong Kong on 30 September 2010. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.[3][4] The film also made its North America debut by premiering at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.[1]

The character of Judge Dee was made famous in western countries by Robert van Gulik, who wrote 17 new Judge Dee mysteries between 1946 and 1967 based on the 18th century gong'an crime novel Di Gong'an. The series is now being continued by French author Frédéric Lenormand. The prequel Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon was released on 28 September 2013, with Mark Chao as young Detective Dee.[5][6][7][8][9]


In year 689 of the Tang Dynasty, Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to be crowned the first Empress in China despite opposition from Tang officials. To mark this occasion, she is having a colossal Buddha figure built overlooking her palace. However an official inspecting the Buddha's progress mysteriously erupts into flames. Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), an officer in the penal system, and his superior investigate and interrogates the supervising builder, a man named Shatuo, who was imprisoned and lost his hand after he took part in a rebellion 8 years ago. Pei's superior catches fire soon after in the palace courtyard in front of the Empress as she is overseeing her palace guards.

The Empress and her attendant Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) receive a message from the Imperial Abbot (state preceptor), who speaks through a magical deer. He says that Di Renjie (Andy Lau), who was jailed eight years ago after leading a rebellion against Wu, must be the one to solve the mystery of the fire. When Jing'er goes to fetch Di from prison, they are attacked by assassins.

Wu returns to Di his position as the royal detective, and charges him with solving the case of the phantom flame. She assigns Jing'er as his assistant to keep an eye on him. While staying at an inn, Jing'er tries to seduce Di on the Empress's orders but they end up facing more assassins. Di meets Prince Li, who is against Wu becoming Empress. Li tries to persuade Di to lead another rebellion: Di refuses. The next day Pei, who has been promoted, takes Di and Jing'er to inspect the charred remains of the officials and sees that a caged bird that was struck by one of the assassin's arrows the night before has caught on fire. Di finds that the arrows the assassins used contain a poison that ignites upon contact with sunlight, which was used to kill the two officials.

Pei joins Di in his investigation. During a visit to the Buddha, Di reunites with his friend Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Shatuo suspects that the venom of insects called "fire beetles" was used to create the igniting poison. He points Di to a man called Donkey Wang, who is hiding in a network of caverns called the Phantom Bazaar. Pei orders Shatuo arrested for not telling him of this connection when he interrogated him before, but Di waves off the order saying that he can trust his old friend.

Di, Pei, and Jing'er find Wang at the Phantom Bazaar; however, they are pursued by a figure who seems to be the Imperial Abbot. Jing'er denies this and goes after him. Pei follows to help her but chases the figure out of the caves into the Infinity Monastery, the Imperial Abbot's residence. Intruders will be killed immediately, so Pei leaves and meets up with Jing'er, Di, and Donkey Wang. Donkey Wang reveals that he had been the court physician, and tried to use the fire beetles as medicine for the former Emperor. He fled when he discovered that the fire beetles were dangerous - their body excretes a liquid that catches fire when exposed to sunlight. Wang is able to use a process called transfiguration (based on acupoints) to change his appearance.

Prince Li finds Di and gives him back his mace, which has a special ability to shatter weapons. This mace was given to him by the previous Emperor but confiscated when he was imprisoned. Di maintains his political neutrality. Despite pressure from his subordinates, Li refuses to have Di killed, however Li is himself assassinated.

Wang had been raising the fire beetles in the Infinity Monastery, leading Di to suspect the Chaplain's involvement. Jing'er informs Wu of Di's intent. Wu meets Di outside the palace with Jing'er and her royal guards and warns him that he will be killed if he tries to enter the Monastery. Pei arrives and announces that Prince Li has been killed, allowing Di to escape.

Pei has a theory that the first official might have been killed because of something that turned up in his inspection of the Buddha statue. Pei visits his household and finds that his study was mysteriously burned to the ground. Luckily, the official moved his work to another room, and Pei finds that he had indeed discovered something in his inspection. He takes the diagrams, but is pursued and taken captive.

At the monastery, Di uncovers the fact that the Imperial Abbot is Jing'er using transfiguration as a disguise, and speculates that the Empress has used the figure of the Imperial Abbot as a way of justifying her tyranny with a supposedly divine source. He says that knowing the Empress's secrets puts Jing'er in danger. An anguished Jing'er attacks him, but finds herself unable to kill him in the end. She carries him out into the forest, where she trips several wires, releasing javelins which impale her. When he wakes up, Di fulfils her final request by sending her back to court and she dies in the Empress's arms.

Di then finds Pei in captivity. Pei erupts into flames immediately upon being exposed to sunlight. As he dies, he directs Di to look under his saddle, where he finds the diagrams. Di consults the diagrams and goes to the Buddha where he confronts Shatuo. Di has discovered that Shatuo has been planning to kill the Empress by making the Buddha fall on the palace during the coronation. Shatuo admits that he intends to kill Wu for the mutilation and imprisonment he suffered. As the supervisor he altered the Buddha's construction, adding two ducts to pour molten metal to melt the statue's foundations, and hollowing out two of the support beams so it would fall on the palace. He killed the two officials after they noticed the changes, and later killed Prince Li for insulting him. He also reveals that he has taken Prince Li's seal and has the late Prince's army ready to invade the city and kill Wu if she somehow survives. Shatuo sent Di to Wang as a distraction to give his assassins the opportunity to kill Di, while using their friendship to cast blame away from himself.

Di and Shatuo fight. Shatuo drenches Di in water poisoned by fire beetles. Shatuo reminds Di of the rebellion he led against Wu and questions why he is fighting to protect her. Di admits that she is evil but he cannot let her die, as all imperial officials will die and resulting chaos will harm the innocent. Workers start to pour the molten metal into the pillar to melt the base, and Di knocks one duct aside to change the direction of the fall. Infuriated, Shatuo fills a bottle of fire beetle water to assassinate the Empress and rushes to the coronation on horseback, however Di catches up with him and spills the water over Shatuo instead. Shatuo burns to death in the sun while Di manages to reach the coronation in time to save the Empress from the collapsing statue, and warn her of Prince Li's rebel army near the city. The Empress is grateful for her rescue, and in return Di makes her promise to be a just ruler and to return power to the Tang line after her reign is over.

Wu offers Di a place in her court, which he refuses. Di passes his mace to Wu resigning as inspector, and retreats into the Phantom Bazaar, where there is no sunlight. Donkey Wang informs him that there is very little chance that he will be able to cure Di of his fire beetle poison, and Di replies that despite this he is now at peace, and the two enter the Bazaar as the sun rises. The epilogue states that Wu reigned as the first and only Empress in China's history, and kept her promise to Di, resigning after fifteen years.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a co-production between Chinese production company Huayi Brothers (also the film's distributor) and production company Film Workshop. The film will be Film Workshop's 50th feature film as a producer.[10] The film was directed by Tsui Hark, who co-produced the film with his wife Nansun Shi. The screenplay was written by Chen Kuofu, the Chinese screenwriter of the 2008 films Forever Enthralled and If You Are the One. When asked to direct the film. Tsui said that he would only direct the project if he could make adjustments to the script, which he did. Tsui never divulged most of the changes that he made to the original script, but did mention that the character Shangguan Jing'er was previously a man. Fight choreography and art direction for the film was handled by Sammo Hung.


Prior to filming Detective Dee, Tsui had spent years doing research on stories concerning real life Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie. Chen Kuofu first approached Tsui with a screenplay based on the life of Di Renjie.[11]

Tsui first announced production plans in 2008, while promoting his previous film All About Women at the 13th Pusan International Film Festival. At the time, Tsui had pondered on whether to make Detective Dee or remake the 1966 film Dragon Gate Inn.[12]


For the lead role as Di Renjie, Tsui originally had Tony Leung Ka-fai, along with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Jet Li in mind. Jet Li mentioned while promoting Tsui's other film The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate that he had a chance to read the script though he wasn't able to be part of the project due to some unknown reason. Tsui commented on choosing an actor to play Di Renjie: "Who said that Di Ren Jie must be plump and old? He could also be very handsome. Wits and looks can balance one another."[13] On 5 January 2009, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Andy Lau would star in the lead role.[14] On 29 April 2009, it was announced that Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Deng Chao and Tony Leung Ka-Fai would appear in supporting roles.

  • Andy Lau plays Di Renjie, an exiled detective of the Tang Dynasty.[15] Lau felt that the character's psychic abilities was one of his greatest traits: "He is a forensic psychologist who knows what you're thinking, from your eyes, your breathing, the pauses in your speech, he could tell what you're withholding, a melancholic detective." To prepare for his role in the film, Lau studied criminal psychology.[16] Lau had to practice horse riding for the film, accepting help from a professional trainer: "I have always been rather afraid of horseriding, afraid of such a large animal; but now I have overcome the mental obstacle and the lessons have been rather smooth."[16] "He was someone very special, one possessing nerdiness, good deportment and great foresight. His mentality and philosophies were very different from Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. He can dwell forever in my heart, so I have a very romantic view on him, and must also be immaculate."
    —Director Tsui Hark on portraying Di Renjie.[10]
  • Carina Lau plays Wu Zetian, the Tang Dynasty empress of China. The film marks Lau's first feature film role in four years. On her role in the film, she commented on the strength of the empress: "I feel that Wu Ze Tian is a 'superman', her fate is very tragic, but she would find opportunities to defy her fate, to bring her, step by step, closer to her dreams. She has very strong willpower and is very wise, unlike myself."[10]
  • Li Bingbing plays Shangguan Jing'er, a highly skilled martial artist, who serves as Wu Zetian's maid and right-hand "man". The character is loosely based on Shangguan Wan'er, who was a poet, writer and politician of the Tang Dynasty.[10] Director Tsui Hark decided to change the character, feeling that a more fictitious character would provide more room for creativity: "There're some things that Wan-er couldn't do, like being a top-notch martial arts expert."[10]


Principal photography for Detective Dee began in May 2009, with a budget of $20 million;[11][14] the film was shot using Red One digital cameras[17] in Zhejiang, China at Hengdian World Studios, which is one of the largest film studios in the world.[18] Detective Dee has been described as one of Tsui's most personal films to date. During production, Tsui would reportedly work consistently on the set, barely getting enough sleep.[19]

Action direction[edit]

Sammo Hung served as an action director for the film and his stunt team built eight platforms (12 meters tall) in the cave for three days of wire work. The record was over 70 wires for one scene.[16] One of the sculptures was an 80 metre bust of Empress Wu Zetian, a key element of the film that cost $12 million HKD to design and decorate. During production, reporters were invited to enter the bust's interior, which included a 12 meter tall circular platform. Outside of the platform hung red and white drapes that were full of scriptures.[20]

Fight choreography[edit]

Detective Dee's martial arts sequences were choreographed by Sammo Hung, who worked extensively alongside actors Andy Lau and Li Bingbing. Tsui choose Hung as a choreographer, feeling that his work had shades of Bruce Lee. Of the fight sequences for the film, Tsui commented that they would be similar to that of Ip Man, as they would aim for realism with actual punches and kicks. This would prove difficult for actors who had no martial arts experience.[21] Of the two actors, Li Bingbing had no experience in martial arts, and her role required that she use various weapons in the film such as a whip and a sword.[21]


China Daily placed the film on their list of the best ten Chinese films of 2010.[22] Time Magazine considered it the third best film of 2011, after The Artist and Hugo.[23] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 81% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 6.9/10.[24]

Awards and nominations[edit]

30th Hong Kong Film Awards

  • Nominated: Best Film
  • Won: Best Director (Tsui Hark)
  • Won: Best Actress (Carina Lau)
  • Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Tony Leung)
  • Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Deng Chao)
  • Nominated: Best Cinematography (Chan Chi-ying, Chan Chor-keung)
  • Nominated: Best Editing (Yau Chi-wai)
  • Won: Best Costume Design (Choo Sung-bong)
  • Won: Best Production Design
  • Nominated: Best Action Cherography (Sammo Hung)
  • Nominated: Best Original Score (Peter Kam)
  • Won: Best Sound Effects
  • Won: Best Visual Effects (Phil Jones)

5th Asian Film Awards

  • Nominated: Best Production Design (Choo Sung-bong)
  • Nominated: Best Visual Effects (Phil Jones)
  • Nominated: Best Costume Design (Bruce Yu Ka-on)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame". Toronto International Film Festival 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-09-12. 
  2. ^ "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame at Box Office Mojo". 
  3. ^ "Venezia 67". 2010-07-29. Retrieved 2010-07-29. 
  4. ^ "Venice unveils 2010 competition lineup". The Hollywood Reporter. [dead link]
  5. ^ Star, Korea (2012-08-17). "Actor Kim Bum to star in Tsui Hark’s movie ‘Detective Dee: The Prequel’ - Yahoo! OMG! Philippines". Retrieved 2013-07-08. 
  6. ^ Hong Gil-dong (2012-08-17). "Actor Kim Bum back in Hark Tsui’s new film". The Korea Herald. Retrieved 2013-07-08. 
  7. ^ "Kim Bum Cast in Upcoming Hong Kong Action Thriller Film". Soompi. 2012-08-16. Retrieved 2013-07-08. 
  8. ^ 安蔚 (2012-08-03). "Cast list of Tsui Hark's 'Di Renjie' revealed". Retrieved 2013-07-08. 
  9. ^ "Kim Bum to Make Chinese Film Debut with Director Tsui Hark - Yahoo! OMG! Philippines". 2012-08-17. Retrieved 2013-07-08. 
  10. ^ a b c d e "Detective Dee Press Conference in Hengdian -"., Baidu, Sohu. 13 June 2009. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  11. ^ a b Tsui Hark to Direct Judge Dee in May 2009 -
  12. ^ Tsui Hark Ponders Over Doing New Dragon Inn or Di Ren Jie First -
  13. ^ Tsui Hark: Di Ren Jie is "internationally known" | AndyLauSounds
  14. ^ a b Detective Dee Investigates Mysterious Deaths in Tsui Hark's Upcoming Film -
  15. ^ Detective Dee Cast Announced -
  16. ^ a b c HKSAR Film No Top 10 Box Office: [2009.06.12] ANDY LAU STUDIES CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY
  17. ^ [1]
  18. ^ Di Ren Jie started shooting in Hengdian | AndyLauSounds
  19. ^ Detective Dee Concept Art -
  22. ^ Zhou, Raymond (30 December 2010). "Top 10 movies of 2010 in China". China Daily. Retrieved 30 December 2010. 
  23. ^ Corliss, Richard (7 December 2011). "Top 10 best movies". Time Magazine. Retrieved 27 March 2012. 
  24. ^ "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 5 July 2012. 

External links[edit]