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
Music by Peter Kam
Cinematography Parkie Chan
Chan Chi-ying
Edited by Yau Chi-wai
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 stars Andy Lau as the titular protagonist. The supporting cast includes 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 has a colossal Buddha figure built overlooking her palace. However an official inspecting the Buddha's progress mysteriously erupts into flames. Penal officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao), and his superior investigate and interrogates the supervising builder, a man named Shatuo, who was formerly imprisoned after he took part in a rebellion 8 years ago. They find nothing however and Pei's superior dies in the same manner as the official soon after.

The Empress orders former detective and rebel Di Renjie (Andy Lau) be released from prison after the Imperial Abbot (state preceptor) states that he must solve the mystery of the fire. She sends her attendant Shangguan Jing'er to fetch Di from prison, where they are attacked by assassins.

Wu reinstates Di as the royal detective, and charges him with solving the murders, assigning Jing'er to be his assistant and 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, trying 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. Di deduces that the assassins use a poison that ignites upon contact with sunlight, which was used to kill the two officials.

Pei joins Di in his investigation. Heading to the Buddha, Di reunites with his friend Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Shatuo suspects that the venom of insects called "fire beetles" were 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 before, but Di says that they 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 following to help her. He chases the figure to the Abbot's forbidden residence, preventing Pei from following. 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 after discovering their true danger, using a process called transfiguration (based on acupoints) to change his appearance.

Prince Li approaches Di and returns his mace to him, which was taken after he was imprisoned. Di maintains his political neutrality and Li is assassinated soon after. Suspecting the Abbot's involvement Di prepares to enter his home in the Infinity Monstary. Wu meet Di and warns him that he will be killed if he tries to enter the Monastery. Pei arrives with news that Prince Li has been killed, allowing Di to escape. Following a theory Pei finds that the first inspector discovered something during his inspection of the Buddha, taking 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, however she stumbles into several traps set by the assassins mortally wounding her. Di fulfills her final request by sending her back to court and she dies in the Empress's arms.

Di finds Pei but is unable to save him as he catches fire in the sun. As he dies, he directs Di to where he hid the diagrams. Consulting them Di uncovers the culprit, Shatuo, confronting him at the Buddha. Shatuo plans to kill the Empress as revenge for the mutilation and imprisonment he suffered by collapsing the Buddha upon the palace. He killed the officials after they noticed his changes to the Buddha and later killed Prince Li for insulting him. He has also taken the late Prince Li's army, readying them to invade and kill Wu if she somehow survives.

Di and Shatuo fight, Di becoming drenched in water poisoned by fire beetles. Shatuo questions why Di fights to protect Wu, Di stating that her death will cause chaos. Di is able to divert the statue off, Shatuo then heads to the coronation to kill Wu with the poisoned water. Di catches up with Shatuo and spills it on him instead, causing him to burn to death in the sun. Di arrives and saves Wu from the collapsing statue, and warns her of Prince Li's rebel army near the city. The Empress is grateful to Di for her rescue, and in return Di makes her promise to be a just ruler and to return power to the Tang Dynasty when her reign ends.

Refusing Wu's offer of a place in her court, Di resigns as inspector and retreats into the Phantom Bazaar, where there is no sunlight. Donkey Wang informs him that he most likely will not be able to cure Di of the fire beetle poison. Despite this Di says 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, abdicating after fifteen years on the throne, in favor of the Crown Prince, the son of the Tang emperor before Wu.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark, who is also a co-producer with his wife,[10] the Chinese production company Huayi Brothers (also the film's distributor) and production company Film Workshop (the 50th feature film produced by the company).

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 woman. 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 chose 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]