Director Hark Tsui discusses his new movie Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Director Hark Tsui discsusses his new movie Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, assembling this amazing cast, and much more.

Western audiences may not know Hark Tsui, but he has proven himself as an innovative director over the past 30 years. With films such as Once Upon A Time In China, The Blade, and the fantastic 2005 period drama Seven Swords, Hark Tsui has established a reputation for quality work in China. Hopefully American audiences will feel the same way when his latest movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 2.

Like many of Hark Tsui's movies, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has its roots in Chinese folklore, with several fictional books written about the actual man, Dee Renjie, a Tang Dynasty district magistrate, who is a household name in China and many other parts of the world. This particular story centers on Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who is brought out of imprisonment to help the very woman who sent him away, Empress Wu (Carina Lau). Several of her officials have died, bursting into flames spontaneously. Detective Dee teams up with Empress Wu's right-hand woman Jing'er (Bingbing Li) to solve this intriguing mystery before Empress Wu's official coronation.

I recently had the chance to speak with director Hark Tsui over the phone, to discuss this wonderful Hong Kong drama. Here's what he had to say below.

You have a history of making films like this, based on historical characters. I also read that you were researching this character before the script came along.I was wondering if you could talk about when you were first intrigued by this character Detective Dee?

Hark Tsui: I was told about this character in the 1980s, during the period when I did A Better Tomorrow. Since then, I was very interested in Dee, the person himself. I was not really aware of how I was going to make a story out of him, but I was interested in anything that happened about him. I was in Hong Kong and there was not information or material coming out from the Hong Kong environment. As soon as we reached the period of internet, I found a lot of material about this person. Then, when China opened up for people in Hong Kong to get into China, it became easier as well and we found a lot of information about Detective Dee. In 2000, I was starting to write a detective story about this character and when I started writing this story, I found out there was another person who was writing Detective Dee stories. We were very good friends and we always talked to each other about our own stories, and about five years ago, and this other director, his name is Kuo-fu Chen, he asked me if I would shoot his Detective Dee story. I said right away that I would like to see one Detective Dee on the screen, instead of two Detective Dee's, so we collaborated. I added a few of my ideas and it became what we have on the screen now.

This movie has hints of these kinds of supernatural elements that are present in the novels, but it's still very much grounded in realtiy. Was that a conscious decision to steer clear of those kinds of supernatural things for this movie?

Tsui Hark: These detective stories always have something mysterious in the beginning to attract the audience. For Detective Dee, he's a real person, and very reserved character. It was very important that it could not be so far-fetched that it couldn't be explained, but it has to be a little over-the-top, in a way, to make this case interesting. A very good detective can always be defined by his investigation, in this world. For Detective Dee, we needed to generate a very romantic and fantastic, attractive world around him, to aid the story that's very interesting to the people. For Detective Dee, I came up with the idea that it has to be very exotic and erotic, in a way.

The movie was really celebrated in China, especially for its visual effects. I was really impressed with the flame effects. Was that one of the big challenges on this production, getting those flame effects just right?

Hark Tsui: Oh, thank you. It was particularly difficult, but it was not as challenging as the Buddha. The Buddha is something that we wrote in the script as a challenge for us. The climax and the ending of the story, we have to rely very much on the post-production and the special effects. It was quite a difficult job for us and a very important job for us to make sure that it didn't go wrong, otherwise, it would ruin the whole ending.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that Buddha sequence, because that was also quite impressive. Was there any of that which was done practically, or was it all digital?

Hark Tsui: It was all special effects. When we were designing the special effects, we have to make sure that it would look interesting to look at something that does not exist in the real world. We already wanted to do something quite impossible in real life, on the screen.

Sammo Hung Kam-Bo was your action director, and I've been a big fan of his for a long time. Can you talk about bringing him in for the fight scenes? It seemed like he crafted different fight styles for each character.

Hark Tsui: These characters are very much representative of their background. For example, Decetive Dee was a pacifist person. He's very much action-oriented, yet he does not intend to kill people, he just tries to stop the action. For the girl, she has these weapons to present her authority. The whip is something that shows she is the master to the prey. I think Sammo's contribution to the action, not just the physical fighting, I think he put his experiences in the movie, in the design. He spent a lot of time trying to flip that boat in the cave, on the surface of the water (Laughs). He thought that was a very important part, something that we wouldn't expect.

This movie has a wonderful cast, but it also seems like this is your first chance to work with some of these actors who you had not gotten to work with yet like Andy Lau and Carina Lau. Can you talk about assembling this wonderful cast?

Hark Tsui: I had been trying to look for projects to work with Andy Lau and Carina Lau. With Andy, we had been talking for years. As soon as I found out this Detective Dee story, I thought of him automatically. The reason why I thought it was a perfect choice, because he is a very modern character on screen. Empress Wu and Detective Dee were the two modern people coming from our modern time, who happen to be trapped in the 7th Century. It was something I really enjoyed, to create a character on the screen and to have that kind of nature. Detective Dee is the kind of person who would always comes up with unpredictable speeches and behavior. He' s a kind of humorous person, an intelligent person who always finds humor in life. I told Andy Lau to make the story alive. For Empress Wu, it was a very difficult casting period. I haven't worked with Carina Lau before, but we have known each other for a long time and we always talked about working together. She is a very unique performer in our industry and there are many actresses in her genre, doing this kind of work. When I first came across this character, I thought of her and gave her a call. I said, 'I will give you a very difficult task,' because Empress Wu is a very crucial and important character. Not many people can work like this and I wanted her to play it because I wanted to see her as Empress Wu. She thought about it for a few days, and then she said, OK, let's try it.

Well, that's my time. Thank you so much for talking to me. It was a pleasure.

Hark Tsui: Thank you, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

You can watch Hark Tsui's fantastic drama Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which stars Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, and Tony Leung Ka Fai, in New York and Los Angeles theaters on September 2.