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
Screenplay by Chen Kuofu
Based on Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame 
by Lin Qianyu
Music by Peter Kam
  • Parkie Chan
  • Chan Chi-ying
Edited by Yau Chi-wai
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 29 September 2010 (2010-09-29) (China)
  • 30 September 2010 (2010-09-30) (Hong Kong)
Running time
122 minutes
  • China
  • Hong Kong
Language Mandarin[1]
Budget US$20 million
Box office US$51.7 million[2]

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Simplified Chinese: 狄仁杰之通天帝国, Traditional Chinese: 狄仁傑之通天帝國, Hanyu pinyin: Dí Rénjié zhī tōngtiān dìguó) 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 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 and his superior investigate and interrogates the supervising builder, a man named Shatuo, who was formerly imprisoned after he took part in a rebellion eight years ago. They find nothing, however, and Pei's superior dies soon after in the same manner as the official.

The Empress orders former detective and rebel Di Renjie 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 assigns Jing'er to be both an assistant and spy. On Wu's orders, Jing'er attempts to seduce Di, but they are interrupted by assassins. Di meets Prince Li, who fails to recruit him into leading a rebel army. When Pei takes Di and Jing'er to inspect the charred corpses, Di deduces the assassins use a poison that ignites upon contact with sunlight.

Pei joins Di in his investigation. Heading to the Buddha, Di reunites with his friend Shatuo, who suspects the poison to be the venom of "fire beetles". 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 stops him. At the Phantom Bazaar, Di, Pei, and Jing'er are attacked by a figure who seems to be the Imperial Abbot, though Jing'er denies this. After Jing'er and Pei fight him, Pei pursues him to the Abbot's forbidden residence. Donkey Wang reveals that he was once the court physician and tried to use fire beetles as medicine. Finding their true danger, he disguised his appearance using acupoints and fled.

Prince Li returns Di's mace to him, which was taken after he was imprisoned. Di maintains his political neutrality, and Li is assassinated soon after. Di suspects the Abbot's involvement, but Wu warns him that he will be killed if attempts to enter the monastery. Pei finds the first inspector discovered something in his inspection and takes the diagrams, but he is taken captive. At the monastery, Di learns that the Imperial Abbot is Jing'er disguised using acupoints. Di speculates that the Empress has used the Imperial Abbot to justify her tyranny. Anguished, Jing'er attacks Di but is unable to kill him. However, she stumbles into several traps set by the assassins and is mortally wounded. 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 dies, he directs Di to the diagrams, which implicate Shatuo, whom he confronts at the Buddha. Shatuo plans to kill the Empress by collapsing the Buddha upon the palace as revenge for his mutilation and imprisonment. 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. As Di and Shatuo fight, Di is drenched poison. Shatuo questions why Di fights to protect Wu, and Di states that her death will cause chaos. Di is able to divert the statue, and Shatuo heads to the coronation to poison Wu. Di catches up with Shatuo and spills it on him instead, causing him to burn to death in the sun.

Di saves Wu from the collapsing statue and warns her of Prince Li's rebel army near the city. Grateful, the Empress promises 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.


  • Andy Lau plays Di Renjie, an exiled detective of the Tang Dynasty.[10] 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.[11] 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."[11] "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.[12]
  • 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."[12]
  • 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.[12] 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."[12]
  • Deng Chao as Pei Donglai
  • Tony Leung Ka-fai as Shatuo


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark, who is also a co-producer with his wife,[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]


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."[15] On 5 January 2009, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Andy Lau would star in the lead role.[16] On 29 April 2009, it was announced that Carina Lau, Li Bingbing, Deng Chao and Tony Leung Ka-Fai would appear in supporting roles.


Principal photography for Detective Dee began in May 2009, with a budget of $20 million;[13][16] 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.[11] 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[25][26]

  • 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[27]

  • 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. ^ Detective Dee Cast Announced -
  11. ^ a b c HKSAR Film No Top 10 Box Office: [2009.06.12] ANDY LAU STUDIES CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY
  12. ^ a b c d e "Detective Dee Press Conference in Hengdian -"., Baidu, Sohu. 13 June 2009. Retrieved 7 May 2010.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Hengdian_Press_Conference" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  13. ^ a b Tsui Hark to Direct Judge Dee in May 2009 - Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Tsui_Hark_to_Direct_Judge_Dee_in_May_2009" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  14. ^ Tsui Hark Ponders Over Doing New Dragon Inn or Di Ren Jie First -
  15. ^ Tsui Hark: Di Ren Jie is "internationally known" | AndyLauSounds
  16. ^ a b Detective Dee Investigates Mysterious Deaths in Tsui Hark's Upcoming Film -
  17. ^ Thompson, Anne (6 September 2011). "Tsui Hark Talks Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Goes 3-D". Indiewire. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  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. 
  25. ^ "Detective Dee leads Hong Kong Film Awards". China Daily. 10 February 2011. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  26. ^ Chu, Karen (18 April 2011). "'Gallants,' 'Detective Dee' the Big Winners at Hong Kong Film Awards". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  27. ^ Napolitano, Dean (21 January 2011). "‘Confessions’ Leads AFA Nominations". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 

External links[edit]