The Great Magician
by Elizabeth Kerr
It was really only a matter of time before good old-fashioned magic—rabbits, hats, abracadabra and all that—made an appearance in Asia, where the magical and mystical have been cinema standards for decades. To that end comes director Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a step away from the director’s preferred urban action fare. Magician is the kind of colorful, polished amusement that could find an audience in urban markets around the globe. Respectable if not blockbuster box office is possible in Asia where recognizable stars and novel a subject could carry the day.
In the early 1900s, a Japanese plot to conquer China and a misguided attempt to reassert Manchurian rule inspire warlord General Lei Daniu (Lau Ching-wan) and his right hand Liu Kunshan (Wu Gang) to reunite the country themselves. Meanwhile on the home front, Lei is trying his very best to win the affection of his 7th “wife,” Liu Yin (Zhou Xun), who’s with Lei because he’s holding her father captive. Dad (Paul Chun) knows the whereabouts of a scroll that holds the key to mind control, but he’s not talking. Lastly, itinerant magician/insurgent Chang Hsien (Tony Leung) and his trusty show troupe are plotting a way to overthrow the warlords as well. Little does Chang realize the love of his life, Yin, is married to Lei.
It takes upward of an hour to lay the narrative foundations in The Great Magician, and the peculiar alchemy Yee and co-writers Chun Tin-nam and Lau Ho-leung aim for never fully works: Superfluous backstory could have been excised to make room for the film’s stronger elements; Lei’s six other wives are not characters, they’re giggly schoolgirls; an early rivalry between Chang and Chen Kuo (Alex Fong) is carelessly abandoned; there’s a hint of a love triangle that remains painfully undeveloped, leaving one of Magician’s strongest assets, Zhou, with little to do. It flirts with Cyrano de Bergerac-style romantic sleight of hand but never really goes full-on rom-com, political intrigue never takes center stage, and retro vaudevillian comedy sputters to life then dies almost as fast. It’s hard to tell what this movie is supposed to be.
That leaves magic. There’s lots of it for fans—and plenty of room for irritation for non-fans. The Great Magician doesn’t lack polish and the magic sequences, along with the rest of the film, boast strong production values. But Leung and Lau are never given a chance to bounce off each other the way Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman did in The Prestige. Every time they get on a roll, Yee gets sidetracked by a Houdini moment and forgets about his stars. The biggest letdown by far, though, is only hinting at the underlying theme that likens magic and cinema as entertainments based on trickery; ones that audiences are willingly fooled by.
Still, The Great Magician looks great, and Leung and Lau do manage a few sparkling moments despite the material, and a clutch of cameos by familiar faces (director Tsui Hark, actors Lam Suet and Daniel Wu) prevent the secondary action from becoming background noise. A happy ending is never in doubt, and though The Great Magician doesn’t aim to innovation, it’s not quite the magical experience it should be.
Section: HK Filmart
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
Production company: Emperor Motion Picture, Bona Entertainment
Producers: Henry Fong, Mandy Law-Huang, Peggy Lee
Director: Derek Yee
Cast: Tony Leung, Lau Ching-wan, Zhou Xun, Yan Ni, Vincent Kok
Screenwriter: Chun Tin-nam, Lau Ho-leung, Derek Yee based on the novel by Zhang Haifan
Executive producer: Jeffrey Chan, Albert Yeung, Yu Dong
Director of Photography: Kita Nobuyasa
Production Designer: Zhen W
Music: Leon Ko
Costume designer: Yee Chung-man, Jessie Dai
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung
No rating, 128 minutes