“Magic to Win” revisits the popular Hong Kong 1980s “Happy Ghost” films (the first of which arrived back in 1984, inspiring no less than 4 sequels), following the same formula of cute female students getting involved in magical and supernatural shenanigans and learning lessons about life and growing up. Somewhat surprisingly, the film was helmed by Wilson Yip, who since the critical and commercial success of the Donnie Yen starring “SPL” and “Flashpoint” has been hailed as one of Hong Kong’s top action directors, also having been responsible for the hugely popular “Ip Man” and sequel.
The film certainly represents another high profile popcorn outing for the director following his “Chinese Ghost Story” remake last year, and again sees him working with a cast of bankable talent including Louis Koo (“Overheard 2”), Fahrenheit’s Wu Chun (“My Kingdom”), martial arts favourite Wu Jing (“SPL”), real life magician Tonny Jan, and Mainland actress Yan Ni (“Mural”), with teen model Karena Ng making her screen debut as the female lead. The film also provides a link to the original “Happy Ghost” through the presence of veteran star Raymond Wong, plus cameos from Loletta Lee and Yip Sai Wing.
After an opening scene in which drunken Wood Magician Gu Xinyue (Louis Koo) is defeated and spirited away by the apparently villainous Fire Magician Bi Yewu (Wu Jing), the film introduces the viewer to Professor and secret Water Magician Hong Sum Kwai (Raymond Wong). During a rainstorm collision, he accidentally transfers his powers to his student Cheng Meisi (Karena Ng), who uses her newfound magic to turn around the fortunes of the school’s incompetent volleyball team. After their success on the court, she and her friends form a club and start making money by using her powers to fulfil requests, despite her being warned against it by Earth Magician Ling Feng (Wu Chun), who is hanging around the campus after losing a duel with Bi Yewu. The Fire Magician eventually reappears himself, intent on stealing Cheng Meisi’s powers and claiming for himself the magic of all five elements so that he can use them to travel back in time.
There are really two ways of looking at and judging “Magic to Win” – one as the latest outing from Wilson Yip, director of gritty hit “SPL” and martial arts epic “Ip Man”, and the other as a remake of family friendly Hong Kong fluff “Happy Ghost”. Unsurprisingly, viewers choosing the former are likely to be disappointed, as “Magic to Win” is in every way a straightforward piece of slight, silly cinema which shows none of Yip’s flair for kinetic action, with even Wu Jing keeping his fists unclenched throughout. This in itself is by no means a bad thing, and doesn’t prevent the film from being enjoyable nonsense, though it does require adjusted expectations.
Aside from ditching its Qing Dynasty ghost for elemental magicians, the film sticks very closely to the original, for the first couple of acts at least, mainly just following Cheng Meisi and her friends as they get up to magic related hi-jinks. Although the comedy is for the most part basic slapstick and semi-surreal wackiness, the film is amiable and light hearted, with a handful of funny gags and set pieces along the way, mostly involving people being propelled through the air or being hit by volleyballs. The magical element works well, with some special effects that are definitely above average by the standards of most Hong Kong productions, and though some of the various wizardly duels are a little copy and paste gratuitous (in particular a bizarre lightsaber faceoff), they’re generally imaginative and help the film bounce along at a decent pace, distracting from a needless last act stab at melodrama.
The cast all go some way to making the film better than it might have been, with Karena Ng perfectly decent in the lead, despite not having much to do beyond looking cute and learning to be more responsible – a message which does get somewhat muddled in the film, with it seeming to be ok to use magic to cheat in some ways but not others. While Louis Koo’s appearance amounts to little more than a confusing (and confused looking) cameo and Wu Chun is reduced to good looking love interest, Raymond Wong is on charismatic form and seems to be having a good time with his role, and Wu Jing is reasonably effective as the glowering Fire Magician – even if he does completely vanish from the film and plot for most of the running time without explanation.
Bearing all of this in mind, “Magic to Win” is a perfectly respectable and entertaining piece of fun, vaguely in the old fashioned Hong Kong style, and it largely succeeds in its modest ambition of updating “Happy Ghost”. Although arguably showing Wilson Yip as moving dangerously close to becoming a director for hire, it’s a pleasant enough diversion that benefits from a lively cast and some comparably impressive special effects work.
Wilson Yip (director) / Edmond Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Chun Wu … Ling Fung
Bak-Ming Wong … Professor Hong
Jacky Wu … Bi Yewu
Karena Ng … Cheng Meisi
Ni Yan Ni Yan … Volleyball Team Coach
Louis Koo … Gu Xinyue