Grand scaled, fluid, yet dragged out and overlong, this Hong Kong production has the controversial new Empress of China seeking out the help of famed Detective Dee in order to investigate the spontaneous human combustion of two government officials. Both victims were inspecting a massive statue of Bhudda in the capital, and the workers of the statue spread the rumor that it is due to the first official’s forbidden movement of a sacred stone buried within. To dispel these supernaturally based claims, the Empress frees Dee, who’s been imprisoned for actively rebelling against the very same Empress. She joins Dee up with two of her loyal constituants, a fierce bodyguard and a dogged albino investigator, and the three traverse in, around, and below the city in search of either a mass conspiracy, a magical ruse, or a precise, carefully constructed con.
The first thing that is apparent about the film, even before the introduction of murder and detectives, is it’s sense of scale in regards to its portrait of 7th century China. The Empress’ massive palace, along with the gigantic statue that defines her reign, whose shadow looms over at all time, is lavishly produced with a mixture of sets and CGI. Director Tsui Hark is a legendary filmmaker in Hong Kong, having directed Jet Li classics like Once Upon a Time in China and Twin Dragons, as well as having produced some of John Woo’s best work, and this film has him exhibiting his directorial talents in spades; the various locations, the overall look of the piece, and especially the various gravity-defying set-pieces (choreographed by HK film legend Sammo Hung) benefit from his confident and experienced hand. Where the film falters is in its script: after balancing the focus between several characters for much of the picture, the third act suddenly isolates Dee on his quest for much of the remaining screentime, and the momentum of the piece suffers for it. Also, the final revelation, meant to be an emotional shot to the ribs, lacks a certain impact that it could’ve easily retained had it been buttressed by a more prominent backstory. But even during the drawn-out, obligatory climax, the film is never boring, and the visual complexity more than makes up for the sudden lull in the narrative.
The cast does a strong job of fulfilling the roles they inhabit, even when they are shortchanged by the script. Andy Lau, the immensely talented actor from films like Infernal Affairs (he originated Matt Damon’s role from the Departed, and achieved a similar effect without Damon’s boyishly endearing face), House of Flying Daggers, and God of Gamblers, plays Detective Dee as a sort of mix between the old and new Sherlock Holmes and Jet Li’s character from Hero; he is astoundingly intuitive, using his tack-sharp intelligence to size up opponents in battle, but, with his unwavering political ideals and patriotism, is just as concerned with the macro as he is with the micro. Forced to protect an Empress he does not believe in to support a movement which he has no allegiance to, he nonetheless resigns himself to fully contributing his talents in order to keep China from devolving into spiritual hokum and territorial anarchy. As his mysterious female companion, Jing’er, Li Bingbing (looking ever so slightly like Kim Kardashian) is alluring, intense, and more than capable in her fight scenes, with the love interest angle between Jing’er and Dee coming off as natural and complex rather than awkward or forced. Carina Lau, as the Empress, is dignified and confident, but the real scene-stealer of the movie is Deng Chao as Pei Donglai, the albino state detective. Dogged, fiercely intelligent, and more aggressive than Dee, Pei’s interplay with nationalist Jing’er and pragmatic Dee is one of the great joys of the film. The back half’s greastest flaw is the disbanding of the central trio, but it is their chemistry and exploits that provide the backbone and heart of the film.
Recommended to fans of grand-scale, ambitious period Hong Kong cinema a la Hero or True Legend. While I would never recommend it over the former, it is more serious of a film than the latter, albeit without quite that level of bone-breaking, visceral action.