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Originally released back in 2005, “The Magicians” was the 4th film from Korean indie director Song Il Gon, known for artistic and offbeat genre offerings such as “Feathers in the Wind”, “Spider Forest”, and most recently the more mainstream romantic drama “Always”. A feature length expansion of a 30 minute short which Song originally made for the Jeonju International Film Festival, the film represents an impressive technical achievement, having been shot in one, 96 minute long take.
The film revolves around the New Year’s Eve reunion of the titular rock band, beginning with drummer Jae Sung (Jung Woong In, “My Boss, My Hero”) and keyboardist Myung Soo (Jang Hyun Sung, “My Friend and His Wife”) sitting around and drinking in a bar deep in the snowy woods, waiting for singer Ha Yeong (Kang Kyung Heon, “Spider Forest”). The two men reminisce about the past and Ja Eun (Lee Seung-bi, “A Tale of Two Sisters“), Jae Sung’s girlfriend and the band’s guitarist, who killed herself several years back, until a monk shows up, asking for the snowboard he apparently left at the bar. Unbeknownst to them, Ja Eun is actually present as well, as an unseen ghost, watching over them as they relive the past.
Although there was always going to be a danger of a film like “The Magicians” being dominated or held hostage by its one shot take gimmick, thankfully Song Il Gon shows the same skill as a storyteller as he has in his other outings, constructing an intelligent and involving plot. Indeed, the technique actually enhances the narrative, the necessity of sticking close to the cast and the limited locations giving it an intimate feel, almost as if the viewer were in the bar with them. The story certainly never feels as if it had been written around the setup, and is a genuine and humanistic tale, which benefits greatly from a well written and believable set of amiable characters, and anecdotal, meandering dialogue that rings true throughout. Song does a great job of fusing nostalgia and moments of humour and pain, gradually revealing the depth of the relationships between the band members, and the film is surprisingly moving and free of cheap melodrama, building to an emotionally rewarding conclusion.
Of course, the main draw here is the film’s technical aspects, and “The Magicians” is really quite remarkable. Song does an absolutely fantastic job of not only playing out the film in a flawlessly naturalistic single shot, but also manages to make it span several different time periods, seamlessly dipping into the past by cleverly transforming the rooms of the bar and the surrounding woods. In this sense, the film is a true magic act, and though it does verge on the theatrical at times, Song shows an amazing sleight of hand in the way he keeps the viewer utterly absorbed by the illusion. The device of having Ja Eun’s ghost as a constant presence similarly works very well, and what could have been a bit pretentious instead helps to link the past and present, as well as lifting the mood at times, since she clearly seems to be happier and more carefree dead than alive.
As a result, “The Magicians” is a film which is easy not only to admire, but more importantly, to enjoy. A hugely entertaining and likeable effort whose story and one shot technique truly compliment each other, it provides a great reminder that Song Il Gon is indeed one of Korea’s most interesting and innovative directors.
Song Il-gon (director) / Song Il-gon (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong Woong-in