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Visionary director Tsui Hark has updated and re-imagined several classic films over the past three decades, cleverly re-packaging them for a new generation of fans. In his hands, movies like Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman found new life as The Blade, and his Once Upon a Time series of films, starring Jet Li, re-imagined the adventures of real-life historical figure Wong Fei-hung. Hark returns to the history books with his latest film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, examining the exploits of beloved historical figures Di Renjie and Empress Wu against the supernaturally infused backdrop of the Tang Dynasty.
Speaking by telephone from Hong Kong with Spinoff Online, Hark discussed his latest martial arts period epic from Indomina Releasing, which stars Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers) as the title character.
When asked what is most important when approaching a remake of a classic tale, Hark was candid, saying, “The first thing [is] I have to be a fan of the story, and the reason why I always come up with this, you know, a new version of something I have seen before, is that I feel there is still something missing.”
Questions he had for directors of films he watched and enjoyed as a teenager would later inspire him to revisit their material in bold new ways. “I always have a question in my mind. I think, ‘What if the story is not what it was when I saw it?’ It would be quite interesting if it was a different version,” he said.
Another powerful motivator for Hark has been the need to make classic films palatable for new fans. “I feel like we need to generate different energy again onscreen so the new generation will see it again and know about, you know, this story that happened so many years ago,” he said.
Explaining that classic films can sometimes be limited by the style and storytelling lessons of their respective generation, Hark is actively looking to close that gap. “To bridge the time so that you know people nowadays can see it and know about the old movies, the classics,” he said. “That’s why I make these movies.”
Legendary actor, director and martial artist Sammo Hung (Kung Fu Hustle, Ip Man) served as action director on Detective Dee, providing unique and distinctive fight choreography for the main characters. Hark cited Hung’s experience and expertise as the reason why he was so eager to collaborate once again with his good friend. “As soon as I approved this story, I called him right away because I think he’s a very good action choreographer/director who can help me to enhance this unique world of Detective Dee,” he said. “He always gives me a very different way of action because he is already a very good director.”
Myriad weapons are employed throughout the film, the most interesting being a mace wielded by Detective Dee that has a “listening” mode that can be used during combat. Like the detective himself, the mace takes a sort of testimony, allowing Dee to “hear” the weaknesses of his opponents.
“This actually came very early when we designed the character,” Hark said. “It’s really a symbol of democracy, as a matter of fact, of an individual talking to authority.” The mace was a gift from the late emperor to Dee to keep those in power honest and accountable. “It’s not just for killing,” Hark explained. “It’s for controlling and restraining the power of the bad people and so that, you know, the good side of the society can [be] kept.”
Credited with bringing big Hollywood effects to Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s with movies like Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain, Hark confirmed that his latest project will be a 3D martial arts action film that will have him reuniting with Jet Li. “Yes, I just finished and we are in post-production and the thing we are doing will be released later — the end of this year.”
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame opens today in select theaters.