Based on Chinese folk hero Di Renjie (popularized in the West by Robert Van Gulik’s “Judge Dee” stories), Tsui Hark’s latest is a return to form for the director. Written by Jialu Zhang, the film plays out against the politics China in the late 600s A.D. When officials start spontaneously combusting on the eve of Empress Wu’s inauguration, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) gets released from jail to solve the mystery. He’s accompanied by feisty royal guard Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bing Bing) and determined albino Pei Donglai (Chao Deng) as he unravels the story, digging deeper than he should. As Dee, Lau seems to be having a lot of fun and this translates from the screen. Along with the politics and immolation, there Hark showcases several set pieces and martial arts battles choreographed by Sammo Hung. I’m not usually a fan of wire-fu but the fights here look great.
Watching Detective Dee, I was often reminded of another film about a criminalist investigating apparently supernatural forces, Pitof’s Vidoq (a.k.a. Dark Portals). Both characters have been brought to the screen in the past, enjoying new life with digital effects and slick camerawork. That several people burst into flames in both films helped reinforce this idea.