Here I am in quarantine like a dummy. I have some symptoms that aren’t going away with reasonable treatment, so I’m getting tested for COVID tonight, and I’ll have the results in 48 hours. This is boring for me, but really hard on Damien, who has already been doing all of the driving because my dumb car is in the shop, and now he has to do everything else, too, and sleep on the couch. I sure hope I get a negative. I sure do.
This note just slid under the door:
Here in NH, school is closed for Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, which is how you do it if you know you’re not going to change anybody’s mind and you don’t want no trouble. My friend posted this link where you can enter your zip code and it will tell you which native tribes or nations originally lived there. Normally on this day I’d be starting the suppli around now, but I think in the future we may make a stab at cooking some sort of Abenaki-based meal on this day and have our Italian Feast on some other day. Damien and I both spent time in Rome and both love food and cooking, so we have to have a big Italian meal at some point. We’ll see. My current thinking, subject to change because I am human, is that the “Columbus was just 1490’s-style Hitler” stuff is dumb, and I see how it made sense to choose Columbus to celebrate in the 1860’s, when the word on the street was that Italians are barely human, much less real Americans; but that message isn’t urgent in 2020, whereas “don’t you go killing people” is, so it doesn’t make much sense to have a Columbus Day right now. It’s okay to change. And if you’re going to have a day to remind the world that people are real and important, then you really can’t make an argument against Indigenous Peoples Day. But, suppli.
Anyway, gosh, all I meant to say was: Hey, we watched a really great movie last night, and you should watch it, too.
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)
[Where to watch]
I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so thoroughly. Damien and I were both streaming it in different rooms, and we kept texting each other things like “meteor hammer!” and “magic deer!” and “spooky pandemonium!” and “WHAT!!!!”
The story is a bit convoluted and I didn’t completely follow it, but that didn’t detract from the experience. A bunch of people are mysteriously burning up from the inside out, right before the new empress’ coronation, so she brings a celebrated detective out of exile to find out who’s doing it and how. You’re kept guessing the whole time about who’s on whose side, and why, and also, WHAT!!!!
Every single scene is completely gorgeous. The trailer makes it look a little depthless, but the actual movie draws you right in. There is tons of CGI, but it’s done in a style that makes you think fondly of those labor-of-love video games from the late 90’s, or of some completely bonkers amusement park ride where they went all in.
I was trying to figure out what sets this movie apart from superhero movies that show you incredible worlds and heart-pounding action and insane special effects, and it’s just kinda dull and repellant after a while. Part of the difference is that, in Detective Dee, they also went all in with the stunts and costumes and sets and props, so you felt like you were being given something, rather than tricked into believing something. There’s something very generous about the way it was put together. Also, part of the plot involves sorting out what’s actually supernatural and what is trickery, so maybe that explicit awareness that there’s an important difference between real and fake factored into how the spectacle was presented.
Anyway, it was witty, silly, exciting as heck, constantly surprising, scary, occasionally moving, and overall an immensely satisfying movie, with gripping characters. The empress is SO INTERESTING, and I’m now mulling over some of the themes of the story, because it wasn’t just all action and spectacle (although you could just sit back and enjoy the action and spectacle, and that’s plenty). One character is unwillingly plucked from a sort of underworld and keeps insisting that HE’S FINE, and doesn’t need to get involved. Another one keeps insisting “I HAVEN’T FAILED” even when… well, you’ll see. And the empress and Dee and the courtesan/assassin/shapeshifter Shangguan Wan’er have several conversations about what is and isn’t allowable or forgivable, when you have higher aims in mind and are trying to set the world right again. A lot of the movie is about the struggle between your personal desires and the greater good. Gosh, I loved Detective Dee. You love to see a hero who isn’t invincible or impenetrable, but who completely understands who he is and what he wants to accomplish in the world.
As for the suitable audience: It does have subtitles (and a few of the translations are a little goofy, which adds to the charm). It’s violent, and some of the special effects are scary, so maybe ages 9 and up for that, depending on how sensitive they are; and there is a short “they almost had sex” scene, and then a discussion of that scene later. No naughty bits, and it turns out to be important to the plot. Overall less graphic and sleazy than Indiana Jones. There is also a character named “Donkey Wang,” and I was not entirely sure what they meant by that, but it was funny.
If you are desperate to think about something other than current events, this movie will fix you right up. It truly felt like a gift. The story, or at least the characters, are apparently based loosely on actual history from the Tang dynasty, which just makes it better. AND, there are two others! Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings(2018), and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon(2013). I see a new fandom rising in our house.