It’s based on a very old true story—but by the time Tsui Hark finishes revising this tale of an imperial operative working a case during the Tang Dynasty, the results look more like sci-fi. The year is 689 A.D. Detective Dee (Andy Lau) has been freed from prison to assist the ruler who put him behind bars in the first place.
Eight years earlier Dee opposed the ascension of Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) to the throne; now, she’s on the verge of becoming the first female emperor in the history of China. (Needless to say, a lot of powerful men are not amused.) A pressing problem for Wu involves the two officials of her court who have spontaneously combusted (hence the title). Almost everyone thinks this is some form of divine retribution—but the soon-to-be monarch, her two closest confidants (played with multi-sexual allure by Li Bingbing and Deng Chao), and Detective Dee suspect otherwise.
The film’s visual style is at times so dense it simply overwhelms (ditto the plot). The shots of the towering Buddha, under construction to celebrate Wu’s coronation—particularly those inside its cavernous interior—are jaw-dropping. Add to this the work of behind-the-scenes martial-arts multi-talent Sammo Hung, mix in a vampire subplot, and then top the whole thing off with The Imperial Magic Talking Deer (my favorite), and you’ve got a most splendidly overwrought package. And, hey, you might even learn some Chinese history.