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Trip to Wal-Mart yields unlikely discovery of strong Chinese film

July 17, 2012 |

By G. Michael Dobbs news@thereminder.com A guilty admission and a look at the best local place to find Chinese films on DVD are featured in this week's column.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
I really make a concerted effort not to shop at Wal-Mart for a variety of reasons, but I do find myself occasionally at one and because I'm a weak, weak film fan, I always look at the DVD selection. For reasons I don't understand Wal-Mart consistently has new action films from Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Japan among its offerings. I assume these films sell well enough to keep the buyers interested in keeping them in stock, but it always surprises me. There was a fascinating arc in how Asian films, especially those from Hong Kong, went being a true cult item in the United States that only could be found in Asian markets to something that distributors such as Miramax were bringing into mainstream theaters. The last Asian film that received any widespread theatrical release was "Curse of the Golden Flower" in 2006 and lately films from Asia receive release on DVD. At least I don't have to scout out an Asian market and see if the owners will rent to me! The new feature I found at Wal-Mart, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame," could have been a hit in theaters. It has an involving mystery, is visually stunning and has great action sequences. It also stars the charismatic Andy Lau. The film is set in 649 A.D. For the first time in China's history, a woman could ascend to the throne of emperor. Facing rebellion from factions who do not want to see a woman in that leadership position, she has crushed her opponents, executing them or sending them to prison. As her coronation approaches, the work on a gigantic steel sculpture of Buddha is finishing construction, when a hideous accident occurs: one of the people leading the building is killed by bursting spontaneously into flames. The empress/regent knows there is one person who could figure out how and why this is happening: Detective Dee, an investigator she had put into prison. Dee (Lau) is a man not only of great knowledge, but also ethics, and he accepts this assignment as long as he has the independence and authority to see it to its conclusion. Director Tsui Hark has been credited by many as the person who created a new form of cinema in Hong Kong in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Having studied film in the United States, Hark wanted to bring Western special effects and style to Hong Kong and fuse it with traditional Chinese subjects. The result has been an audacious list of films. This new film is no exception with Tsui creating an ancient China with both green screen and computer generated technology and huge impressive physical sets. The film is beautiful. The action sequences are also masterful as Tsui employed the legendary Sammo Hung as the action choreographer. Hung is a long-time action star and accomplished director himself and the fight scenes are superb. Tsui masterfully combined a level of realism with elements of myth that produced a film that is truly Chinese in tone, but is accessible to those of us who are not Chinese. This is the most impressive Chinese film I've seen since "Red Cliff." Watch it.
I also found at Wal-Mart "The Jackie Chan Collection," a most impressive eight film set for less than $10 that includes Some of Chan's very best films. The two "Operation Condor" films, the two "Project A" movies, "Twin Dragons," and "Super Cop" are all highly recommended. Although too many of Chan's American projects have been duds, these films show him at the peak of his career as a young movie-maker. No serious DVD library should be without this collection.

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