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[GUEST REVIEW]: Michaele Jordan on The Vanishing Detective Dee

“A movie needs three things,” my husband recently announced. “Horses, rocks and girls.”
“Not so!” I protested. “A movie needs butt-kicking martial arts. Also really over-the-top costumes.”

Our friend Scott shook his head sadly. “I hate to see you two arguing,” he intervened. “Especially since everybody knows what a movie really needs is a convoluted mystery.”

Not to worry. We made peace. We watched Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

What? You’ve never heard of it? But it won a dozen major Asian film awards! It was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, and was well received at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. It was directed by Hark Tsui, China’s number one big name director, and starred Andy Lau, a major Hong Kong leading man. It got glowing reviews in the Washington Post and 81% at Rotten Tomatoes. But, as you may have heard, Americans don’t like subtitles. In the US, it vanished like an ice cube dropped into the sun.

And yet, it’s a truly glorious period epic, about an ancient Chinese empress trying to build a colossal Buddha in honor of her coronation. Who knew there really was a Chinese Empress (Regnant, Sacred and Divine!) Wu Zetian in the late seventh century C.E.? (That’s Common Era. Jews don’t like to say A.D.) She was the only Chinese empress ever. She probably really did have an attitude, too, trying to run a country where Confucius taught that a woman in charge was as unnatural as “a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak.” No wonder she shifted the country away from Daoism to Buddhism. Take that, Confucius!

Detective Dee is also based on a real person: Di Renjie, an important political figure in his day, and counselor to the above mentioned empress, not to mention the star of 17 Judge Dee mystery novels by Robert van Gulik.

Even Empress Wu’s girl-Friday, Shangguan Jing’er, is loosely based on an historical personage, Shangguan Wan’er, although Shangguan Wan’er was more given to poetry and politics than martial arts and magic.

Fear not, the history lesson ends there. From then on, the movie is an action packed carnival, with murder victims bursting into flames, an adorable little albino cop chasing shape-shifters across rooftops, martial artists flying through the air, and enough gigantic wheels and gears to dazzle Guillermo del Toro. Trust me, I don’t care what you think a movie really has to have. You will find it here.

Who cares what most mundane Americans think about subtitles? We are fans! The few, the proud, the literate! So do yourself a favor and watch Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flames, available at Netflix and Amazon, plus a lot of other places.

Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction and Buzzy Mag. Her latest story is featured in the Jul/Aug issue (now on the stands) of Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at

4 Comments on [GUEST REVIEW]: Michaele Jordan on The Vanishing Detective Dee

  1. It looks nice, but how’s the screenplay? (remember Prometheus?)

  2. And not the first movie based on the character! I have all of RVG’s books about Dee, love the stories. Will seek this out.

  3. Thanks, Michaele.

    I knew about Wu Zetian–not least because she is the Chinese civilization leader in the strategy game Civilization V!

    She is proof that there are an awful lot of history out there that doesn’t get much play

  4. Coincidentally just watched this a few weeks after Tobias Buckell recommended – awesome film. I might also recommend the completely unrelated and no bearing on this post “Way of the Warrior,” which was surprisingly(? not really, but it caught me by surprise) good.

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