Jan 20, 2011

Detective Dee: Making The Case

It’s interesting how certain individuals, real or fictional, tend to pop up repeatedly in one form or another.  On the fictional side, Sherlock Holmes has returned many times over the past 120 years in books, movies and television shows.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in 2010’s “Sherlock” for Granada Television was a particularly great example which took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and re-imagined them in modern-day London.  Interestingly enough, several surveys done over the years have indicated a certain portion of people have mistaken Holmes as an actual person.  Now that’s true literary power!

On the flip side, it’s also quite possible for a real person in history to become fictionalized as has often been the case with Di Renjie, a Chinese Imperial official from the Tang Dynasty, noted for his intellectual prowess and effectiveness as a judge and administrator, whose exploits have often taken on a larger-than-life tone.  Di Renjie, like Sherlock Holmes, has been the hero of various entertainment mediums as well as a subject of study for historical scholars for many years.  He rose, most notably in his career, to one of the highest advisory positions in the Imperial Chinese system, serving twice as chancellor for China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian.  Although not well-known in the West, Di Renjie occupies a unique place in Chinese history and folklore.  Two instances I would like to point out are the recent 2010 Chinese movie, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and the Judge Dee novels from Robert Van Gulik.

Detective Dee

2010’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, “directed by Tsui Hark, whom one could consider the Steven Spielberg of Chinese cinema in terms of hits and successes, takes place during what in real life was considered the latter part of Di Renjie’s career, detailing a fictional account of his being pulled out of exile by Wu Zetian to solve a serious of mysterious murders.  Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau (who seems to age much slower than the rest of us) plays the title role and the story focuses on detective-work mixed together with elements of martial arts to provide action and push the story forward along with bits of political intrigue and gender politics.

One weakness of the movie in my opinion though is the shift away from Dee Renjie being the driver of the story and events and instead relying more on external factors and characters.  Andy Lau’s character is in the center of things, but you can’t help but feel he’s being pushed along more by the screenwriter’s pen than by his own abilities, which brings me to the next example.

Judge Dee

The Judge Dee novels, written by Dutch diplomat and Sinologist Robert Van Gulik in the mid-20th century are a fine set of mysteries told in the fashion of more traditional Chinese detective fiction, introducing separate cases and plots within one book, sometimes related, sometimes not.  Originally, Gulik completed a book called “The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee,” chronicling real-life accounts from Di Renjie’s legal career and decided to take a stab at detective fiction using inspiration from those and other cases.

The stories he ends up telling are quite fun with the main character, Judge Dee, firmly anchored in the center of events and focuses on the earlier part of his career as a local magistrate, combining detective-work with the responsibilities of being a judge.  Judge Dee’s adventures take him through many different cities and provinces as he meets many lowly and prominent figures, helping to solve crimes and dispense justice to those who in the end are responsible for them.

The one difference that I like comparing both “Detective Dee” and “Judge Dee” is the title placed before Di’s name.  The movie portrays a detective while the books show a judge who also does detective work.  Both have a different approach, but in the end the bad guys are still caught and justice is served, something the real-life Di would have appreciated.