Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

I almost wish I'd seen Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame before writing Master of Devils. The titular Di Renjie is an exiled investigator, not unlike my Count Jeggare, and I now see Andy Lau's striking face whenever I envision the venture-captain.

Some call Detective Dee a Tang Dynasty Sherlock Holmes (the Guy Ritchie version), an apt simplification that covers both the premise and details such as a hint of steampunk and the occasionally dodgy CGI. I Sammo Hung's action choreography and the breathless blend of action and magic that recalls director Tsui Hark's classic 1990s fantasies.

Based on the novel by Lin Qianyu*, the plot offers an excellent template for a Pathfinder adventure. Commanded by the Empress to investigate apparently supernatural murders, Di and a pair of suspicious assistants (including Deng Chau, pictured) explore such exotic locations as a colossal Buddha, the Imperial city, and a subterranean Phantom Market. If the procedural elements are not always convincing, the intrigue, spectacle, and over-the-top action more than make up for the fuzzy border between logic and magic.

Gamers will enjoy the fantasy elements, my favorite of which is Di's sword-shaped mace, able to detect the weak point of any object and destroy it with a blow. Spontaneous combustion, magical disguises, clockwork traps, and conjured animals fit neatly into a Pathfinder game.

At film festivals, I usually skip movies I've already seen or expect to see soon. I'm making an exception for Judge Dee, since I'd like to see it among fellow fans in anticipation of Pathfinder's Tian Xia setting this summer.

* Western audiences met Di Renjie, inspired by an historical figure, through the pulp novels of Robert van Gulik, who called him Judge Dee. Other characters from the film, including the Empress, are also based loosely on real persons.

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