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The Great Magician
The Great Magician     The Great Magician

(left) Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Lau Ching-Wan, and (right) Zhou Xun in The Great Magician.
Chinese: 大魔術師  
Year: 2012  
Director: Derek Yee Tung-Sing
Writer: Derek Yee Tung-Sing, Chun Tin-Nam, Lau Ho-Leung, Zhang Haifan (original novel)
Action: Stephen Tung Wai
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Lau Ching-Wan, Zhou Xun, Yan Ni, Wu Gang, Paul Chun Pui, Lam Suet, Wang Ziwen, Zi Yi, Kenya Sawada, Berg Ng Ting-Yip, Alex Fong Chung-Sun, Daniel Wu, Tsui Hark, Vincent Kok Tak-Chiu, Jamie Luk Kin-Ming
The Skinny: Derek Yee's The Great Magician is amusing and intriguing before becoming overstuffed, nonsensical and pointless. A disappointing but still somewhat pleasing Lunar New Year film thanks to Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Lau Ching-Wan, whose shared screentime and extensive interplay should delight many a Hong Kong Cinema fan. Oh, Zhou Xun is in the film too.
 
Review
by Kozo:

If you want to get the most out of The Great Magician, it helps to like fan service. Loosely defined as "giving the fans what they want," fan service may be the saving grace of Derek Yee's film about a dashing magician who comes between a naughty warlord and his would-be seventh wife. Great Magician marks the first screen appearance of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai since the blockbuster Red Cliff films, plus he's paired with Lau Ching-Wan, his co-star in nineties faves The Longest Nite and Dr. Mack, and more importantly, the eighties TVB drama Police Cadet and its sequel. With a star pairing like that, it almost doesn't matter that Zhou Xun is their leading lady. The magic, comedy, martial arts, even director Derek Yee – all minor compared to seeing TLCW and LCW share the screen. As long as the movie doesn't suck, many fans will be good.

Good news, the movie doesn't suck. Well, not completely. Set in early 1900s China, Great Magician tells the story of illusionist Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who arrives in town to amaze the locals and shame his competitors with his dazzling and elegantly performed magic shows. But Chang Hsien has an ulterior motive: he and his team plan to kidnap warlord Bully Lei (Lau Ching-Wan), who lives up to his name by ridiculously taxing locals and generally acting like he runs the show. Bully's biggest grief: circus acrobat Liu Yin (Zhou Xun), whom Bully has kidnapped in hopes of making her his seventh wife. Liu Yin is cool to the idea, however, and only stays with Bully to find her father Liu Wan-Yao (Paul Chun), who is mysteriously missing. There’s also the matter of Liu Yin’s old fiancé, who zipped off to Europe some years ago. Will he return to save Liu Yin and find her father?

Unsurprisingly, Chang Hsien is Liu Yin’s long-lost fiancé, but the film takes its sweet time getting to him. Great Magician takes its time to get going, first introducing us to Liu Yin, Bully and his don't-trust-them entourage, led by right hand man Liu Kun-Shan (Wu Gang) and Bully's third wife (Yan Ni). When Chang Hsien finally shows up nearly a half-hour in, things get rolling, the action alternating between magic performances and situation comedy/drama, with Chang Hsien and Liu Yin pretending not to know one another while Bully stands by obliviously. Or maybe Bully isn’t oblivious to Chang Hsien and Liu Yin’s previous engagement. And maybe Chang Hsien knows that Bully knows but pretends that he doesn’t know that Bully knows. Ah, but maybe Bully knows that Chang Hsien knows that he knows and acts like he doesn’t know that Chang Hsien knows. Or something. Everyone plays multiple angles, using barbed dialogue and verbal jousting to attack, defend or just needle one another. It’s tiring but also funny. Sometimes.

Despite the tension, Great Magician is a comedy, though with some dark edges. Bully seems buffoonish, but he’s got a cruel side, as evidenced in one scene where he casually offs someone, and Chang Hsien’s kidnapping plans are exceptionally risky. Derek Yee seems to be aiming for something entertaining and theatrical but with real danger – think Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues for the best example of the formula Yee attempts. Yee has his work cut out for him, as the plot expands alarmingly; the love triangle deepens, the bad guys multiply, the side characters get more annoying, and some magical whozit called the “7 Wonders” shows up to confuse things even more. There’s even a moviemaking subplot that allows Yee to throw on a little commentary. If you think all of that sounds scattershot and unfocused, you wouldn’t be wrong. Despite possessing a strong central idea, Great Magician adds so many convolutions that it begins to stagger beneath the weight.

Ah, but there’s fan service, namely Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and his arsenal of smouldering looks and playful, charming gazes. Leung’s mischievous ladykiller act goes back a couple of decades but has been absent in recent years thanks to sobering dramas, period epics and long waits for Wong Kar-Wai to resume shooting. Great Magician gives Leung license to charm all of Bully’s wives, which he does in two fun sequences, plus he gets to spar in a near-romantic fashion with Lau Ching-Wan. Zhou Xun does a fine job as the woman in the middle, but she’s nearly an afterthought when Leung and Lau get together. Lau matches Leung perfectly as the arrogant Bully Lei, a character who’s as irresistibly lovable as he is inherently despicable. The two are cast as rivals but spend plenty of time as near-buddies, which is even more satisfying for the actors’ longtime fans. Even if Great Magician falls apart, it has this - a Leung-Lau team-up that plays to the Hong Kong entertainment-faithful.

It’s great that the two are on their game, because the film's lack of focus only worsens. If the director were Tsui Hark, he’d turn this into one of his crazy movie piñatas, where action, comedy, romance and thrills combine breathlessly into an entertaining whole. But Derek Yee is not Tsui Hark, and sticks to a flat comic tone while letting his actors and their interplay do all the work. The actors are great while the magic is diverting in its visual presentation and sometimes explained sleight-of-hand. However, the film overuses CGI, which hurts immersion right there. As magic is itself about fakery, having the movie double-fake everything is alienating. Also, while Yee offers some commentary using his moviemaking subplot, he neglects to connect it to the magic or the characters' multiple facades. All the performance elements (filmmaking, magic, acting, showmanship) beg for some sort of linked meta-commentary, but the script and direction don’t go there. This is a high level quibble, but this is also Derek Yee. Isn't he one of Hong Kong's great filmmakers?

Yee is, if One Night in Mongkok and Lost in Time are any evidence, so maybe the problem is simply that The Great Magician is not Yee's bag. Yee is great with details and moral quandaries, but seems unable to deliver something simple and silly. Yee may even know his own limitations; about two-thirds into the film, he seemingly gives up on the story’s tension or dark edges and opts for random farce, with characters behaving inexplicably and inconsistently, and plot twists just flying out of nowhere. If The Great Magician possesses an edgy or dramatic story, the last third of the film all but sweeps it away, resolving matters with audience-pleasing star turns, easy conveniences and wan resolutions. Liu Yin finally chooses between Bully and Chang Hsien, but will anyone care at that point? Hard to say, because the film itself doesn't seem to care. But as long as Bully and Chang get to hang out, faux fight and ride off into the sunset with the semi-promise of sequel, all is well in The Great Magician's world. Again, that's if you're a fan. (Kozo, 2012)

 
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Vicol Entertainment Ltd.
2-DVD Edition
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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