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“The Great Magician” was one of the more highly anticipated Chinese releases of late, marking actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s return to the screen after a break of three years, having presumably been worked in after his turn in Wong Kar Wai’s still unfinished “The Grandmasters” had wrapped. The film also aroused interest for the fact that it saw Leung headlining along with Lau Ching Wan, the two having worked together several times in the past, most notably on Patrick Yau’s classic 1998 noir thriller “The Longest Nite”, with popular and talented actress Zhou Xun as the female lead. Based on a novel by Zhang Haifan, the film was a prestigious, big budget production, with one of Hong Kong’s current top directors at the helm in Derek Yee, best known for recent action hits “Triple Tap”, “Shinjuku Incident” and “One Nite in Mongkok”, and an illustrious supporting cast of industry veterans including Yan Ni (“Magic to Win”), Wu Gang, Paul Chun (“A Simple Life”), Alex Fong (“Overheard”) and Lam Suet (“Womb Ghosts”), plus cameos from Daniel Wu and Tsui Hark.
The film is a period piece, set back in 1916, when China was being fought over by warlords and plotted against by the Japanese, with Tony Leung as Zhang Xian, a magician who turns up in the capital one day, vowing the crowds with his act. Of course, he has something grander in mind, being part of a plot to kidnap warlord Bully Lei (Lau Ching Wan), not to mention trying to win back the heart of his former fiancé Liu Yin (Zhou Xun), who has been kidnapped as one of Lei’s concubines. Things rapidly become even more complicated, with Lei’s right hand man Butler Liu (Wu Gang) and one of his wives (Yan Ni) conspiring against him and searching for something called the Seven Wonders, which Liu Yin’s imprisoned magician father may or may not hold the key to.
Added to this already convoluted affair are kidnap plots, Japanese villains, early film makers, tanks and mind control, making “The Great Magician” seem at times like an attempt to pack in as much as possible to one film, or perhaps just that Derek Yee wasn’t as comfortable with this kind of material as with gritty thrillers. The film’s early flirtations with serious espionage intrigue do suggest the latter, as does a definite uncertainty of tone, with knockabout silliness being peppered with a few moments of surprising nastiness. Still, there’s a great deal going on, and though the film has a tendency to wander off on wild tangents and rarely makes much sense, it’s certainly never boring, Yee managing to entertain throughout.
The film is definitely most successful when settling for old fashioned nonsense, and is best viewed as a traditional caper of sorts. Yee has a good time with the many mistaken identities and wacky schemes which make up the script, with pretty much every character harbouring one secret or another, and allegiances shifting constantly. Similarly, although the romance is distinctly half baked and frequently fades into the background, there’s a fair amount of enjoyment to be had trying to work out who Zhou Xun will end up with, and the potentially more melodramatic elements of the film never really intrude or slow things down. Although overlong, with a two hours plus running time, Yee keeps the film moving with some nicely done magical set pieces, bolstered by some decent use of CGI effects.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s greatest asset is its two male leads, the pairing of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s and Lau Ching Wan being very much worth the price of admission. The actors have a real chemistry between them, and the film gets impressive mileage out of their dynamic as it switches between rivalry and buddy shenanigans. Their characters, though both flawed, egotistical men, are a lot of fun to spend time with, and the film’s best moments are when the two are onscreen together, bickering, play fighting or trying to out-scheme each other. In particular, it’s great to see Leung back on the big screen again, his playful charisma having been much missed in recent years. Zhou Xun is also on good form, and though the script does perhaps understandably relegate her character at times to a background concern in favour of the Zhang Xian-Bully Lei show, it wins points for at least not making her the expected kind of useless damsel in distress.
Whilst there’s no denying that “The Great Magician” is a little underwhelming, this is mainly due to Derek Yee having shown himself over the last few years to be a talented helmer capable of commercial fare with real substance. Judged on its own merits, the film still makes for fine, undemanding fun, with Tony Leung, Lau Ching Wan and Zhou Xun providing impeccable star power, and Yee managing to serve up enough laughs and magic themed action to hold the interest.
Tung-Shing Yee (director) / Tin Nam Chun, Ho Leung Lau, Tung-Shing Yee (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Leung Chiu Wai … Chang Hsien
Ching Wan Lau … Bully Lei
Xun Zhou … Yin
Ho Leung Lau