Directed by Derek Yee
Black-magic comedy, 128′
Magic has been the one enchanting ingredient to bring incredible productions to Western big screens. As films such as ‘The Illusionist’, ‘The Prestige’ and ‘Death Defying Acts’ emerged, magic became that special something which made for somewhat original exploration of cinema. So when a title like ‘The Great Magician’ reached the ears of cinephiles – a film with tricks and magic, set against the background of history and treason, with a touching personal story about love – it certainly creates an amount of curious anxiety and anticipation of a wonderful experience. Particularly when it’s left in the hands of Tony Leung and Zhou Xun.
Sadly, it does not live up. Derek Yee‘s film falls short to impress with its magic or with anything else. The story lacks pace and originality, and despite the cast’s brilliant performances, there is just something missing. Given the hopes of the audience that the missing ingredient would be, in fact, the magic, there is certainly disappointment ahead – despite the big budget and expensive production values, it fails to maintain the spark of interest. As everything else in the film is a painfully underexplored cast, chopped side-stories and unconvincing love triangle, when the mystery vanishes, the rest is lost cause.
Set against the political relationships of ruling warlords and hungry for occupation Japanese, ‘The Great Magician’ tells a love story through double-meaning dialogues and concealed intentions. In the ruling land of Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau), crowds are tricked with illusions and Japanese invaders posing as film-makers, while the warlord attempts to charm his seventh wife, portrayed by Zhou Xun, who remains with him in hope of finding her lost father. But her heart already belongs to another man, as the audience would find out from an impressive painting illusion by the magician Chang Hsien – the man in question.
The first half of the film is brilliantly close to perfection – a great mixture of tricks and multi-faceted characters, guessed intentions and subtext, along with a great martial arts sequence by Xun and Lau, ‘The Great Magician’ sadly loses its charm and turns into a mixture of cheap laughs, unconvincing characters and stereotypes. The old magician, Chang Hsien‘s mentor and father of the seventh wife, is disappointingly left out of the mix, despite having such great potential, and his imprisonment seems pointless – the scroll of the ‘Seven Wonders’ does not seem to be any tool for mind control, nor any empowering qualities for the magician.
For a film with such a good premise and a collection of great actors (an early delight is a cameo by Daniel Wu), ‘The Great Magician’ turns into a painfully boring experience. Despite the vaudevillian illusions and the representation of the rapture spectatorship in the ‘old days’ when tricks were perceived by the gullible audiences as sorcery, the magic does not suffice. The characters undergo unconvincing developments, and the love triangle takes over any trace of a sideplot, leaving an un-intriguing tale of stereotypes: villain-turned-hero; the stubborn desired beauty, still hurt by her lover’s desertion; and the mysterious magician with secret intentions. With only a few interesting details, comparing old-time magic and modern cinema-making, used as entertainment and distraction for the ignorant crowd, ‘The Great Magician’ is neither great, nor magical.
Review by Antoniya Petkova