“Detective Dee” Movie Review and other Thoughts

The first time I learned of the Emperor Wu Zetian, who was a woman, was when I wrote a four part series of her starting with Wu Zetian, China’s Female Emperor – Part 1, October 9, 2010.

In fact, while researching Emperor Wu, I learned that under her rule, the economy, culture, social and political affairs prospered. She was also a talented military leader who reformed the army. After the reforms, without leaving her palace, she managed victorious military conflicts with rival states.

If you decide to see the movie, you will discover that the film depicts her as a brutal, scheming tyrant. Historically, China’s historians often demonize powerful women. In reality, the facts say that she was no worse than most male emperors were and was more talented, open-minded in addition to being an early feminist.

The last time I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, I had an opportunity to talk to a film agent that said Hollywood wasn’t making epic blockbusters anymore because they cost too much.

Consider that the 2004 Alexander the Great cost $155 million to produce and the gross box office was about $164 million and in 2007, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End cost $300 million to produce.

However, according to Box Office Mojo, the budget for Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was $13 million. Maybe all films should be made in China.

The film was based on the Chinese folk hero Di Renjie, popularized in the West by a series of detective novels written by Robert Van Gulik (1910 – 1967), who called him “Judge Dee“.

When I went to see the film, I discovered that it was an action mystery of epic proportions with classic palace intrigue that rivaled a Hollywood epic, which today would cost twenty times the estimated budget I mentioned earlier.


Tsui Hark Director of “Detective Dee” interviewed by Film Steve 3

I enjoyed the film and walked away thinking that anyone interested in a glimpse of how powerful China was thirteen hundred years ago, this lavish spectacle provides a hint of that former time.

The mystery that Dee solves is the spontaneous combustion of two high-ranking court officials that exploded in flame when exposed to sunlight.  Do not expect the ending to be the stereotypical Western conclusion.

These ‘murders’ take place before the coronation of Wu Zetian as China’s first female emperor.  Detective Dee, the films hero, is based on a real person but there is a lot of fiction and fantasy mixed into this epic film.

The real Detective Dee was originally Duke Wenhui of Liang, an official of the Tang Dynasty and of Emperor Wu Zetian’s Zhou Dynasty. He was one of the most celebrated officials of Wu Zetian’s reign.

Discover another classic/epic Chinese movie in Farewell My Concubine

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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