Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is a movie produced by the budding movie industry of China. Directed by Tsui Hark, the movie takes place during the Tang Dynasty, just before the inauguration of Empress Wu Zetian. It is a fictional adventure of the famous Di Renji, a chancellor of both the Tang and the Zhou dynasties. Although the movie portrays many of its characters to have superhuman abilities while depicting a fictional event, the movie's setting and some of the characters are historically accurate.
The city of Chang’an served as the capital to both the Tang and Zhou Dynasties [D]. Within the city walls the director shows a bustling city center filled with markets selling both domestic and foreign goods. A group of people are seen playing on a Setar and a Bofu while an Umayyad trader exchanges money with a local dealer. This is historically accurate as the city of Chang’an was the center of commerce for the entire Tang Empire. People from around the globe would come along the Silk Road to trade for the luxuries that the city produced.
The movie starts with a diplomat from the Umayyad Caliphate being shown a sixty-six yard Buddha statue that has been commissioned for the Empress’ inauguration. At the time of the coronation the Caliphate’s territory separated the Tang Dynasty from Europe and Africa [A], which allowed the Caliphate to position themselves as Europe's and Africa’s source of trade goods from the Tang Dynasty. So, it stands to order that a diplomat of the Caliphate would have been sent to show political support of the new Emperor in an attempt to strengthen or maintain the political and economic ties of the two dynasties.
The statue of Buddha is shown to be built in the center of the administrative city located within the Imperial City of Chang’an [m]. The statue in the movie is reported to stand 66 yards tall [m] and a wide angle close-up reveals that the statue looks very similar to the empress that the statue is being built to honor. There is no historical record of such a statue being built. So, this statue appears to be just a plot point. However, in this period it was not unheard of to have a very large religious statue to be built in another person’s honor and even have the statue resemble the person to be honored. In fact, in 676 CE, during the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Gaozong constructed the Vairochana statue in the Fengxian cave in the Longmen Grottoes located in what is now known as the Gansu Province in West China. This statue stands just above seventeen meters in height and is said to resemble We Zetian’s “square forehead and broad cheeks” [B]. It is the largest such statue of the three Grottoes, but is carved out of the wall and not constructed out of iron, as the movie’s version had been.
At one point in the film, Detective Di and his companion move past a market to take sanctuary in a Christian church that is fully constructed, but clearly undergoing renovation. This church is...