Tsui Hark on ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’

The legendary director on Detective Dee, Double Team and his plans to reboot Once Upon a Time in China.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When I visited Hong Kong earlier this year (a personal dream of mine), I picked up a Blu-ray of Tsui Hark’s latest movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. It turned out to be a great investment because the film is releasing in American theaters this weekend. I got to speak with the director by phone about the movie I purchased while visiting the country of its industry.


CraveOnline: Is Detective Dee like an Asian Sherlock Holmes character?

Tsui Hark: I think they belong in the same genre. The thing I tried to avoid is the kind of Sherlock Holmes look at this kind of genre. Sherlock Holmes is more athletic and the character side of the detective genre. Detective Dee, other than the mystery of the story, also reflects the background of a very interesting period in China. Because Detective Dee and Empress Wu are real characters in history, that’s the difference. It’s more like a mixture of Wuxia and history, and of course the detective element.


CraveOnline: Are you more interested in exploring visual effects or the straight martial arts?

Tsui Hark: I think special effects as a tool are quite convenient as an ability to enhance the story when they are necessary. I think especially for a genre like this, special effects are very helpful in terms of creating the generation. The Tang Dynasty period and the tone of mystery by creating some very unusual visuals.


CraveOnline: The big Buddha and the palaces look very real, but you’re also able to create some more magical effects elements.

Tsui Hark: Yes, in a way because the more graphic elements illustrate what can be possible in a historical period. Sometimes it would be bigger than life and sometimes it’s even stretched out more. They’re more like a dream than something actual and realistic.


CraveOnline: There was a time when Hollywood was trying to do everything in Hong Kong style. What does the phrase “Hong Kong style” mean to you?

Tsui Hark: Ha ha, this is very complicated. We find it very, very difficult to describe Hong Kong style because we have quite a few directors who try separate and differentiate ourselves from being the same as each other. So what’s called Hong Kong style is maybe they’re very direct sometimes because we’re very commercial minded. That’s why mostly our movies are pretty fast paced. This is maybe what’s called Hong Kong style but it’s a very complicated question to answer because we are also asking ourselves what other element that we put in the movie creates this Hong Kong style that are defined by the critics in the world. Sometimes it’s difficult to find out the exact answer.


CraveOnline: Is it good that the Hong Kong filmmakers go back to Hong Kong and make movies, like John Woo?

Tsui Hark: I think it’s definitely a good thing. Sometimes I don’t see it as good or bad. It’s a basic thing that you make movies in the homeland and you make movies around the world. You can see directors make movies all over the world and still we respect those directors as very important and influential filmmakers. I think it’s just a very romantic feeling of making a movie for the global audience. When we go back to make movies in our local area, it’s also very interesting. I think sometimes it gives us the feeling of trying to be unique in the way that we’re sharing our culture for a long time.


CraveOnline: We still really like Double Team and it was very controversial when there were Coke machines in the Coliseum at the end. Was that an intentional joke?

Tsui Hark: Yes. I think movies like Double Team are over the top always. When you have something over the top, I think it’s important to create humor by having something very realistic and true to life. To put that kind of thing into a situation.


CraveOnline: Would you ever think about bringing back Once Upon a Time in China and more Wong Fei-Hung stories?

Tsui Hark: Actually, I do. I think for this genre, the thing is the actor who plays the character. Somehow I accumulate enough talent to recreate this genre again. It’s quite close, as a matter of fact quite close to the concept of another version of Once Upon a Time in China.


Top Photo Credit: Joonsoo Kim/WENN