by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
The most ubiquitous and striking poster along the boulevards of Paris these Spring days is of a movie called ‘Detective Dee’, the full title of which is ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’. It was made in China, directed by Tsui Hark and starring Andy Lau, with fight sequences by Sammo Hung. I saw and loved it as it came out in Singapore last year. Between then and its appearance in Paris cinemas it has picked up critical acclaim and awards at Western film festivals.
The movie belongs to a genre which I am a convert to: wuxia, which denotes Chinese historical martial romances with central characters who are either scholar-officials/scholar-monk who are pushed to deal with or deploy violence or warriors who evolve into scholars/scholar-monks. The best known film of this genre was of course, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, but several others of high quality followed, including another personal favourite, ‘Hero’, starring Jet Li.
Detective Dee is solidly within the tradition. The hero actually existed: the legendary magistrate (or minister of state) and intellectual Di Ren Jie who lived during the Tang Dynasty. He could solve the most complicated cases with the use of what would be known centuries later as forensic psychology. In the 1930s he was reworked as the hero of the ‘Judge Dee’ series of detective novels set in ancient China, by the Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik, and later became the central character of films made in Hollywood and Hong Kong.
In the current movie he has spent eight years in prison on the orders of Empress Wu Ze Tian, (again a real historical figure) whose late husband, the Emperor, he faithfully served as an advisor. Judge Dee had been exiled and jailed after the Emperor’s death for dissenting against his spouse’s succession to the throne as China’s first Empress and questioning her unethical methods. As the lavish coronation of the Empress nears, the arrangements and procedures are interrupted by a series of mysterious, violent deaths, which involve the spontaneous combustion of a number of officials.
In a wise move, the Empress orders the release from prison of Detective Dee and his re-instatement as an Imperial Judge. He accepts not only because it gets him out of custody, but because he is drawn to the challenge, and also because his attitude to the Machiavellian yet charming Empress in distress is ambivalently dualistic, as is hers to him.
Detective Dee uncovers a plot which is being hatched to topple the gigantic Bodhisattva statue bearing the face of the soon-to-be Empress that is being cast in bronze for the coronation, onto the royal stage. The plot and the series of strange deaths is the work of his former right hand man and friend, who cannot understand why Detective Dee, having advised against the coronation eight years before and been jailed by the Empress, would want to derail the plan to destroy her and her project of rule.
In the pivotally defining line of the movie Detective Dee admonishes his former colleague, saying: "It is not only the Empress that would be destroyed". This is why he sides, not with his former co-thinker who is taking to the next level of intensity the views they once shared, but with his former persecutor, the ruler whom he does not trust or fully agree with even while he assists her. When Detective Dee says "but it is not just her that would be destroyed" he means that the act would go beyond harming the ruler to damaging the state itself.
His broadness of vision is able to see the Empress against the backdrop of the interests of China; to assess her objective role in the context of China’s need at the time; to weigh her rule against the alternative, which is a weaker China. What would be the impact on China? Would it strengthen China or help the domestic forces of division and dissolution, and aid the external forces that wish to break in? That is Judge Dee’s broader criterion. The hero’s loyalty to China outweighs his misgivings and opposition to the immediate experiment in rulership. His need to avoid the weakening of China outweighs his objections to the further entrenchment and exaltation of the ruler.
Having helped defeat the conspiracy, Detective Dee declines the offer of the Empress to remain at the palace as her Counsellor. With his task accomplished, his duty by his country done, his body infected by the same potentially deadly poison used for the killings by internal combustion, he walks away from the salvaged power centre of the kingdom, inner equilibrium and integrity intact, to self-exile in a watery netherworld of light and shadow.
What in the world does a magistrate who lived in China around 690 AD have to do with Sri Lanka’s collective response to the adversarial report of the UN SG’s Advisory Panel (going by its executive summary which appeared in the media)? Quite a bit, actually.
For those who think that the external trends and forces which gather threateningly on the far horizon will target and weaken only the incumbent administration, the best reminder comes from the Chinese magistrate-detective of 690 AD: it is not only the administration that is being threatened; it is our collective victory over decades of secessionist terrorism, and the Sri Lankan state itself, that stand in danger of being de-legitimised, undermined and dismantled. If the effort succeeds, we would as a nation, all of us, be defeated and diminished in some essential or existential sense.
As a society, as conscious citizens, our attitude and response must transcend the issues of domestic governance. It should not be partisan or ideological. It is gratifying that some younger personalities of the democratic opposition have shown signs of thinking along broader patriotic lines. In political theory, ‘high politics’ classically pertains to state and national sovereignty. In exceptional times and extreme situations, ‘high politics’ must be the higher criterion, and on issues of high politics, we must stand together.