Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is set just before Wu ZeTian (Carina Lau) formally ascends the throne in 689 CE, when she established the Second Zhou Dynasty (周朝, 690-705 CE) that briefly interrupted the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618-907 CE). At the time, Tang Dynasty is witnessing one of its most prosperous era and European dignitaries travel thousands of miles to visit the great empire for trade and cultural exchange. The Silk Road brings luxury goods and the Grand Canal maintains the service routes of commodities throughout China.

The capital city of LouYang is decorated for the banquets feast to commensurate the inauguration of WuZeTian, a regent for the last seven years. Royal clansmen and other government officials resent her authority while foreign ambassadors from around the world have begun to arrive to attend this great celebration. To mark the grand coronation as the first woman emperor, Wu ZeTian has commissioned to build a towering 66 yards of a Bodhisattva stupa statue just outside of the Imperial Palace courtyard.

A few weeks prior the coronation, Master Jia Yi (Chun Hyn), a vice minister of public works, is assigned to escort General Aspar the Umayyad Ambassador (Jean-Michael Casanova) to tour inside the giant Bodhisattva stupa statue. Upon reaching the observation platform of the statue, all of a sudden Master Jia Yi bursts in flames and killed him instantly. Apparently, a few days prior, Master Jia Yi had removed a few of the protection amulets believed to ward off evil and other unwanted disasters. The sacred amulets were placed at the center pillar by Lu Li (Chen Xiao), the Imperial Sorcerer.

Andy Lau as Dee RenJie
Andy Lau as Dee RenJie

Now the terrified construction workers begin to believe Master Jia Yi was killed by a divine intervention. The Imperial Court assigns Master Xue Yong (Liu Jin Shan) and his assistant Pei DongLai (Deng Chao) to the scene to investigate. The both of them discern the conjured reasoning of Master Jia Yi’s death and immediately suspect foul play. Pei DongLai is a surly albino justice official with a keen sense of smell. He has a different theory on how Master Jia Yi was killed compare to his superior’s presumption. They eventually detain ShaTuo Zhong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who is the architect of constructing the giant stupa, as the prime suspect when he misspoke about the ancient curse. ShaTuo Zhong has a severed left hand and he is an Uyghur descent. His left hand was amputated by the order of the Regent for treason conspiracy eight years earlier. Prior leaving for the Palace to report, Master Xue Yong removes other amulets from the center pillar to demonstrate to the workers that he’s does not believe in superstitious. However, upon Master Xue Yong arrives at the Palace, he is killed in similar fate as Master Jia Yi in the present of Wu ZeTian.

The Imperial Palace is now on high alert and the Wu ZeTian is very anxious to find out who is the mastermind of these murders. They are clearly trying to undermine her authority by disrupting the inauguration, which Wu ZeTian has been planning for years. Each of the victims was a loyal subject whom Wu ZeTian personally promoted after she becomes a regent. That evening, Lu Li appears before Wu ZeTian in the form of a talking deer. Lu Li suggests to seek the help of Dee RenJie (Andy Lau), a judicial official who is imprisoned for political treason. Eight years before, Wu ZeTian had Detective Dee imprisoned in distant FenshuYuan for questioning her political maneuvering in the aftermath of the death of Emperor Tang GaoZong.

Wu ZeTian realizes that only Dee RenJie can unmask the conspiracy threatening her impending place in history. She sends her favorite and loyal underling, Sangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing), to find if Dee RenJie is still alive after eight years of tortuous punishment in an infernal prison. She is to drag him back to LuoYang to solve these series of inexplicable murders. Shangguan Jing’er is fierce and highly skilled in martial arts. Eight years earlier, she was adopted by Wu ZeTian after her father, a local magistrate, was killed in the line of duty.

By the time Shangguan Jing’er arrives at FenshuYuan, a group of assassins are trying to eliminate Dee RenJie. However, Dee RenJie manages to fend them. Realizing their mission has failed, the assassins commit suicide. Dee RenJie knows that the assassins are sent within the prison of FenshuYuan. He agrees to leave with Shangguan Jing’er to meet Wu ZeTian. Although Dee RenJie spends the last eight years in prison, he is very much up-to-date with the outside world’s situation. His duty while in prison was to destroy court petitions into a huge incinerator and every bit of a chance he reads them.

Li Bing Bing as Shangguan Jing'er
Li Bing Bing as Shangguan Jing'er

At the Imperial Palace, Wu ZeTian returns Dee RenJie’s badge that she has taken in the past. She appoints him as Imperial Commissioner and his main duty is to investigate of the phantom flame murders case. Wu ZeTian believes that only the intellectually cultivated Dee RenJie has the wisdom and the martial arts to uncover the conspiracy against her. In addition, Wu ZeTian also assigns Shangguan Jing’er to follow and serve Dee RenJie. Beneath the gesture, Dee RenJie knows that Wu ZeTian is testing the loyalty of Shangguan Jing’er. He warns her about Wu ZeTian but Shangguan Jing’er is adamant to prove her loyalty by seducing Dee RenJie. Not a moment sooner, they are being attacked by hail of arrows. They narrowly escape the attack. During the onslaught, Dee RenJie is able to snare a handful of arrows and he also sees another arrow barely pierce through the wing of a song bird in a cage. Dee RenJie then rushes to pursue the attackers up on the roof and it leads him to the banquet of General Li Xiao (Yao Lu). General Li Xiao offers Dee RenJie to collaborate with him to depose the Regent, Wu ZeTian. Dee RenJie gracefully declines the offer.

The following day, Wu ZeTian appoints Pei DongLai to assist Dee RenJie along with Shangguan Jing’er. Shangguan Jing’er and Pei DongLai become Dee RenJie’s uneasy allies. The three of them go to the mortuary to examine what left of the burned cadavers. Dee RenJie takes along the injured bird and places it outside the mortuary. He does not trust Pei DongLai completely and he uses a ruse in order to interrogate him. Meanwhile, the song bird outside the mortuary begins to burst into flames. Dee RenJie immediately understands the cause of the spontaneous combustion. He promptly locates a kitchen and requests a bowl of chicken blood. He takes out the arrows he seized during the attack on the night before and pulls the arrowheads. Dee RenJie then pours out some kind of liquid into the chicken blood from within the arrow shafts, which burns into flames upon exposed to the sunrays.

The next place Dee RenJie visited to follow his investigation is the scene of the first murder victim, inside the Bodhisattva stupa statue. In there, he meets his longtime assistant, ShaTuo Zhong. ShaTuo Zhong reveals a clue to Dee RenJie that the victims may have been killed by the poison of “Fire Turtles”.  The so-called “Fire Turtles” is actually a venomous scarab beetle from the Western Regions that feed on phosphorous. The beetles would catch fire when they are exposed under the sun. ShaTuo Zhong further mentions that Dee RenJie must seek an eccentric old hermit named Donkey Wang Lu (Richard Ng Yiu Hon) at the Phantom Market to find more information regarding the “Fire Turtles”.

Carina Lau as Wu ZeTian
Carina Lau as Wu ZeTian

Phantom Market is a forgotten underground city that had been buried many centuries ago during the Han Dynasty. It is populated with outcasts, madmen and criminals, trading in illicit objects and pushing the boundaries of alchemic science far from the gaze of civil society. Upon finding Donkey Wang Lu at Phantom Market, he becomes the intended target of a falling humongous bell. It misses him and he runs through an escape floor to an underground stream in a small boat. Dee RenJie, Shangguan Jing’er, and Pei DongLai quickly chase after him. Deep inside the caverns of Phantom Market, the four of them is being attacked by what it looks like Lu Li, the Imperial Sorcerer. They prevail, however, Shangguan Jing’er is convinced that attacker is an imposter. Pei DongLai follows Lu Li, who manages to escape into the forest of the Monastery of the Infinite.

Dee RenJie takes Donkey Wang Lu to a safe house in LuoYang. He asks Donkey Wang Lu to remove his disguise. Apparently, Donkey Wang Lu is actually Healer Wang Lu (Teddy Robin Kwan), the Imperial Physician in hiding. Healer Wang Lu reveals that “Fire Turtles” were used eight years ago in attempt to treat Emperor Tang GaoZong’s illness. He was given twenty of them from a Western merchant. He soon learns that the “Fire Turtles” have no healing effect other than a very lethal poison. Healer Wang Lu then flees for his life and attempts to destroy the remaining “Fire Turtles”. He also exposes that the “Fire Turtles” are originally kept inside the Monastery of the Infinite. Dee RenJie then wants to visit the Monastery of the Infinite and confronts Lu Li, the Imperial Sorcerer. Shangguan Jing’er informs him that the Imperial Sorcerer is on spiritual sabbatical and he cannot be disturbed. However, Dee RenJie insists upon Shangguan Jing’er to submit his request for visitation.

While waiting for his request, Dee RenJie and Pei DongLai stroll the capital city. In the middle of bustling city of LuoYang, General Li Xao stops them and hands over the Dragon Taming Mace to Dee RenJie. Dragon Taming Mace is Dee RenJie’s potent weapon bestowed to him from the late Emperor. General Li Xiao’s intention is clearly to create tension between Dee RenJie and the Regent as he knowingly well that her informers are around.  Back at General Li Xiao’s palace, he boasts about his wisdom in handling Dee RenJie in front of his subordinates. All of sudden, an arrow pierces through his forehead shot by an assassin. It turns out the arrow has the “Fire Turtles” poison on it which slowly inflames his dead body.

Outside the Imperial Palace’s garden, Dee RenJie meets Wu ZeTian while Shangguan Jing’er and the Forbidden Troops standing by to protect. Dee RenJie confronts the Regent whether or not she poisoned the late Emperor. She denies it and she forbids Dee RenJie to investigate inside the Monastery of the Infinite. Wu ZeTian also mentions that the Imperial Sorcerer will leave the Monastery of the Infinite once she ascends the throne. Meanwhile, Pei DongLai gallops his horse in a hurry toward the garden causing commotion as he delivers the news about the death of General Li Xiao or Prince of Lanya. Dee RenJie takes the opportunity to slip through the Forbidden Troops’ formation.

Deng Chao as Pei DongLai
Deng Chao as Pei DongLai

That same night, Pei DongLai goes to Master Jia Yi’s residence while acting on a hunch about the connection of these murders. He wants to search for additional clues from the inspection diagram. Pei DongLai asks to see Master Jia Yi’s study. Unfortunately, the study was burned down two days after his death. He notices that the study was under renovation. The servant tells him that Master Jia Yi didn’t use the study during the renovation for a month and he used the east wing study instead. Pei DongLai quickly asks to take him there. Inside the east wing study, he finds the inspection diagram and he discovers the clue he’s looking for. Not long after Pei DongLai leaves Master Jia Yi’s residence, a group of assassins ambush and capture him.

Over at the Monastery of the Infinite, Dee RenJie climbs the wall to get inside without being noticed. He confronts Lu Li, the Imperial Sorcerer. Dee RenJie knows the Imperial Sorcerer is none other than Shangguan Jing’er. He warns her that she is in jeopardy for knowing too many of Wu ZeTian’s secrets. Shangguan Jing’er disregards him and begins to attack. At first, she uses the stags to assail Dee RenJie. When Dee RenJie manages to fend off the foray, Shangguan Jing’er uses her kris like sword to attack him. She also uses some kind of hallucination powder at the same time. Dee RenJie defends himself with his Dragon Taming Mace and breaks her sword. Part of the sword boomerangs toward Shangguan Jing’er and Dee RenJie shields her. It pierced Dee RenJie in the chest and he falls to the ground. However, Shangguan Jing’er could not follow through to kill him. She carries him outside the Monastery of the Infinite’s perimeter into the surrounding woods. Shangguan Jing’er does not notice a trap laid out in her path and a spear penetrate through her abdomen. As she falls down, she once again activated another trap and one more spear strikes her.

A group of assassins appear from their hiding place looking for either Shangguan Jing’er or Dee RenJie. They know their traps have been activated. However, they could not locate their bodies. Up at the highest branches of a tree, Shangguan Jing’er holds Dee RenJie to hide from the pursuing assassins. Once they are gone from the area, Shangguan Jing’er jumps down with Dee RenJie attached to her shoulder. They both collapse unconscious to the ground. When Dee RenJie awakes, Shangguan Jing’er tells him the truth. Wu ZeTian asks her to kill him and she cannot do it. She also reveals that the Monastery of the Infinite is used to eliminate Wu ZeTian’s enemies. Shangguan Jing’er assures Dee RenJie that the Phantom Fire case is not under the Regent’s discretion. Dee RenJie then brings mortally wounded Shangguan Jing’er to the gate of the Imperial Palace.

Tony Leung Ka Fai as ShaTuo Zhong
Tony Leung Ka Fai as ShaTuo Zhong

When Dee RenJie returns to his residence, he finds Pei DongLai is chained to a stake. Unfortunately, Pei DongLai is poisoned with the deadly “Fire Turtles”. Before his demise, Pei DongLai discloses the clue he has found from Master Jia Yi’s construction diagram. Dee RenJie takes the diagram to the Bodhisattva stupa statue, where he confronts ShaTuo Zhong. ShaTuo Zhong has a deep animosity toward Wu ZeTian for amputating his left hand. He has masterminded to destroy her for eight long years. He is planning to use the converted design of the giant statue to collapse onto the coronation. Dee RenJie is determined to stop ShaTuo Zhong’s insane scheme, and on doing so he gets poisoned by the “Fire Turtles”. However, he is able to divert the would-be direction of the collapse.

Meanwhile at the Imperial Palace, the coronation of the first woman emperor has begun. Realizing his plan is sidetracked; Sha TuoZhong fills a canister with the deadly “Fire Turtles” and rides to the coronation ceremony to kill Wu ZeTian with it. Dee RenJie chases him and catches up with Sha TuoZhong. He tries to prevent him. During the struggle the canister accidentally opens and it pours the deadly poison into Sha TuoZhong. Dee RenJie kicks Sha TuoZhong and he falls from the horse as the sun begins to rise. Sha TuoZhong is killed with his own method.

The Bodhisattva stupa statue begins to crumble and collapses toward the Imperial Palace. The guards take Empress Wu ZeTian into safety, but into the direction of the fallen large piece of the statue. From a distance, Dee RenJie warns them about the danger. He manages to save Empress Wu ZeTian from getting smash by a large chunk of debris. The debris actually saves Dee RenJie as well because it shields him from the sunrays. Dee RenJie then acknowledges Wu ZeTian as Empress and he returns to Phantom Market to find the cure for “Fire Turtles” poison in his body.


One of the positive developments of Hong Kong movies of the last few years has been the return of directors of the heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s like Tsui Hark and John Woo. With its own unique mark throughout the years, Tsui Hark returns to direct wuxia genre film which is getting wider international appeal. He is once again flourished without resorting to complete reinvention by bringing masterful art direction of epic wuxia and modern day mystery. To Tsui Hark’s credit, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame brought gorgeously to life costumes and set design that is beyond remarkable. It’s clear that the veteran director knows what the audience wants from the combination of action and suspense film.

On screen performances are well acted by Andy Lau, Carina Lau, and Li Bingbing, who are given interesting characters to form some sort of emotional triangle with a lot of charisma. Andy Lau gave an engagement performance of the eponymous hero with the right amount of virtue, intensity, wit and observance. Carina Lau will also impress the audience with her stoic performance as the ruthless Regent. Li Bingbing is solid and memorable as the gorgeous Shangguan Jing’er, who is tough and complicated playing opposite of Andy Lau’s role character. A lot of credit should go to legendary director of choreographer, Sammo Hung, for coordinating action sequences and fights.

Tsui Hark knows how to deliver slick entertainment to draw viewers into the world of wuxia films. In short, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a worthwhile entertaining movie. It’s a splendor uninterrupted action film that brings back the excitement of Hong Kong cinema.


Andy Lau … Dee RenJie
Li Bing Bing … ShangGuan Jing’er
Carina Lau … Empress Wu ZeTian
Tony Leung Ka Fai … ShaTuo Zhong
Deng Chao … Pei DongLai
Richard Ng Yiu Hon … Donkey Wang Lu (before)
Teddy Robin Kwan … Healer Wang Lu (after)
Yao Lu … General Li Xiao, the Prince of Lanya
Jean-Michael Casanova … General Aspar, Umayyad Ambassador
Chun Hyn … Master Jia Yi
Chen Xiao … Lu Li, the Imperial Sorcerer
Chai Jin … General Qiu ShenJi
Liu Jin Shan … Master Xue Yong
Wang DeShun … XiaZi Ling
YongGang Huang … Zhang Xun
Zhao JianLin … Interpreter
He ShenMing … Prison Officer
Haroyan Sos … Assistant to Umayyad Ambassador
Jiang YanMing … Undertaker


Chinese Title: 狄仁杰之通天帝國
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenplay: Zhang JiaLu
Producer: Tsui Hark, Shi NanSun, Peggy Lee, Wang ZhongJun, Chen Kuo Fu
Director of Photography: Chan Chi Ying, Parkie Chan, Chan Chor Keung
Action Choreographer: Sammo Hung
Art Director: Wu Zhen, Chung Chi Pang, Choo Sung Bong
Image Designer: Kann Chiu, Yu Ka On, Lee Pik Kwan, Hilda Choi
Composer: Peter Kam
Soundtrack: Chen ChuSheng (Forgetful World)

Filming Locations: ZheJiang, China
Release Date: September 30, 2010

Run Time: 2 hour 3 minutes


Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame promo

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