Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Starring: Andy Lau, Li Bingbing, Carina Lau, Chao Deng
(PG-13, 123 min.)
"Men have weak points, just like weapons. They will also break when struck." Empress Wu
"Crouching Tiger meets Sherlock Holmes.” Throw in a little Harry Potter style magic, along with some James Bond action and pyrotechnics and you are in for a two-hour thrillathon. This exotic hybrid takes its craft but never itself quite seriously. And that’s a good thing.
Maybe it’s a reflection of its director, Tsui Hark, one of sixteen siblings in a Chinese family born in Saigon, spending his teenage years in Hong Kong, and finally studying film right here in Austin, Texas. No wonder there’s a little cowboy in his kung fu.
The film opens in the Tang Dynasty circa AD 689 on the eve of the coronation of Empress Wu (Carolina Lau), soon to become the first woman in that seat of power. You only have to look at her bedecked in armor, helmet, and a self-satisfied smirk, not to mention some awesome Vulcan like eyebrows, to know she is no one to mess with.
Unfortunately, Detective Dee (Andy Lau) has, and he is now is rotting in prison as a result of crossing her. But she will have to set him free to help her solve a “chilling murder mystery.” Well, that’s actually a poor choice of words, since seven men under her command are self-immolating on a pretty tight schedule, turning into crispy critters in glorious living color on a grand scale.
First it’s the engineer of the 100-story transgendered Buddha being completed in her honor – its face a replica of her own. He is actually giving an Italian emissary a sky-high tour of the edifice - showing the panorama visible from inside the statue’s eyes - when he starts to cough up clouds of black smoke, just like an old diesel truck belching out hydrocarbons in low gear. He literally burns up from the inside out, his faming corpse fluttering down all 100 stories to land below as a package of charred ash and bones.
The dynamics are equally sizzling between Empress Wu and the detective she has imprisoned for his criticism of her ruthless climb to power. When summoned before her, Detective Dee is still in rags, his hair just a few tangles short of dreadlocks, as dirty and unkempt as in his prison days. He hasn’t bothered changing, he explains, seeing as how he is probably soon to be returned to prison. Not so much like Holmes’ devotion to Queen Victoria, but more like Bond’s “blunt instrument” early relationship with Judith Dench’s M in Casino Royale.
Helping Detective Dee in his task – or are they really spies or culprits themselves – we have the albino Pei Donglai (Chao Deng), as quick in his accusations as his deductions, and Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing) the beautiful favorite and loyal protector of the empress. While her devotion to the empress borders on hero worship and perhaps something even more intense, Jing’er nevertheless is quite willing to play the Bond girl to Detective Dee, once he has tidied up the residual prison scum from what turns out to be a rather lithe and handsome body.
In true James Bond tradition, the seduction soon turns deadly, while the two roll not in erotic ecstasy but in desperate evasion of the assassins’ arrows that rain down on them from a band of malevolent cupids.
Then we have the stunning visuals that leave Western cinema in the dust. The sense of scope and pageantry marvels. The white gowned empress’s colors are echoed in her cadre of women in waiting, but this isn’t the sedately choreographed pageantry of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, but a visual vignette perched on a precipice, ready to leap in any and all directions without notice.
Surprise and humor punctuate the martial arts sequences, only they aren’t really sequences. Instead, the airs-above-ground flying, soaring, martial ballet is the motif; the sequences that interrupt are the narrative plot twists that swirl as fluidly and quickly as the careening players.
An aged blind prisoner fends off an attacker like a bat using sonar, guiding his blows from verbal directions that are precise and mathematical. No Harry Potter wands to shape shift, but long steely acupuncture swords that keep us off balance. Identity becomes a fluid mask and certainty does not exist.
This world is as dark and unknown as the watered underworld of thieves, where monsters arise from dark currents and a menacing villain turns out to be nothing more than a giant marionette. Or it is as serene and beautiful as the lanterned peach orchard, as grim and claustrophobic as the internal gears that power the elevator within the giant Buddha, as glittering and majestic as the palace of the talking magic stag. They are all, in essence, the beautiful backdrops for the surreal fight sequences of lethal elegance.
And did I mention the poison fire beetles, their sting portending fiery death as sure as a vertical ray of the sun?
You won’t even mind reading the English subtitles for this Mandarin kaleidoscope of magic, mayhem, and mystery.
Most of the cuisine in Detective Dee’s film is, unfortunately, of the human variety, and these mortals are not done very well either. They’re all burned to a crisp, for Pete’s sake, dropping down to the ground as flaming creatures.
Forget the humans dropping and settle for some eggs doing that in our delicious, light, and authentic Egg Drop Soup. Not the goopy and MSG laden fare too often found in US restaurants, this one hails from Shanghai. “It’s eggy, soothing, and utterly comforting, especially on a cold day,” which even here in Texas is not too far away.
Shanghai Egg Drop Soup
A few words from the chef:
Egg Drop Soup is a popular soup in the United States. However, I have never tasted a decent egg drop soup in the Chinese restaurants here, so much so that I dread and avoid Egg Drop Soup at all cost whenever I dine out. I frown at the sight of the goopy and MSG-laden soups served here. It all changed when I had Egg Drop Soup at Jesse, a little restaurant frequented by Chinese food connoisseurs in Shanghai, China.
The Egg Drop Soup served at Jesse was so mild and refreshing, with the sweet tang of fresh tomatoes. My Egg drop soup recipe closely replicates the version I had in Shanghai but slightly thickened with corn starch. It’s eggy, soothing, and utterly comforting, especially on a cold day.
Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal
2 tablespoons corn starch
3 tablespoons water
1 ¾ cups (425 ml) homemade chicken broth or 1 can (14-oz/400-g ) store-bought chicken broth
1 cup (250 ml) water
½ tomato, diced
3 dashes white pepper
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
In a small bowl, mix the corn starch with the water. Stir to blend well. Set aside.
Bring to boil the chicken broth and water in a pot. Add the tomato, white pepper, salt, and thicken the soup with the corn starch mixture. Stir the soup with a ladle and turn off the heat.
Swirl the beaten eggs into the soup and immediately stir around for three times with a pair of chopsticks. Cover the pot with its lid for 2 minutes. The eggs should be cooked and form into silken threads.
Dish out into individual serving bowls and serve immediately.
Recipe Source: rasamalaysia.com