|Khigh Dhiegh as Judge Dee.|
During a raging storm, Judge Dee's carriage suffers a broken axle and the magistrate and his three wives seek shelter in a nearby monastery. The abbot is pleased to entertain a guest of Judge Dee's personage, especially since the Taoist monks are celebrating their order's 200th anniversary. However, the visit gets off to a disconcerting start when a shutter blows open and Judge Dee spies a man carrying a one-armed, naked woman in a room across a courtyard. When Judge Dee describes what he saw, the monastery's prior dismisses it with a tale of ghosts that appear to "sensitive" people.
|Keye Luke as one of the suspects.|
|Miss Ting (Susie Elene) has a frank|
discussion with Judge Dee.
In the title role, Khigh Dhiegh appears in almost every scene and holds the film together nicely. Best known as super-villain Wo Fat on the original Hawaii Five-O, Dhiegh comes across as an intelligent man fully aware of his social status (Dee is shocked to learn that he and his spouses will have to share a single room in the monastery). He shows tenderness in the scenes with his wives and convincingly wields a staff in a fight against a swordsman. He receives strong support from an almost all-Asian cast, especially Mako as his assistant and Keye Luke as retired minister from the Imperial Court that resides in the monastery.
|Dee (on right) with one of his wives.|
Robert Van Gulik, who penned the Judge Dee mysteries, based his character on Di Renjie, a real-life magistrate of the Tang Dynasty who lived from 600 to 700. Van Gulik wrote several Judge Dee novels and short stories from 1949 to 1969.
Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders was nominated for a 1975 Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Television Feature or Miniseries. It was intended as a pilot for a television series. Despite its virtues, it's easy to see why a regular series never materialized. The lesbian discussion, the nature of the crimes, and Judge Dee's disposal of the killer would have challenged network censors on a regular basis in the 1970s.
Judge Dee has been portrayed by other actors: Michael Goodliffe starred in a 1969 British TV series and Andy Lau played him in 2010's Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (though it was based on the historical figure and not Van Gulik's character). Still, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the role than Khigh Dhiegh.