The Great Magician (2011)
Director: Derek Yee
Writers: Derek Yee, Chun Tin-nam, and Lau Ho-leung
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Lau Ching-wan, Lam Suet, and Zhou Xun

The Plot: The Great Magician takes place after the Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and finds China entering into some very turbulent times. Various areas are being controlled by warlords, and the local revolutionaries are busy trying to concoct schemes in order to fight the warlords who hold far more firepower. Our story focuses on a military leader named Lei Bully (Lau Ching-wan) who is trying his best to win the heart of a formerly imprisoned woman named Liu Yin (Zhou Xun). Although Lei wants to win her affection, she refuses to give it unless Lei Bully can find the woman’s father. Enter Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a talented magician who may or may not have ties to the local revolutionary groups. As he begins to show off his spectacular magic tricks, he quickly grabs the attention of Lei Bully and the two men bond. However, it seems that Liu Yin has a history with Chang Hsien. The two were formerly lovers, and at the same time that Bully is attempting to win Liu Yin’s heart, he also holds Chang Hsien’s former mentor in prison. With so much riding on the line, Chang Hsien holds his cards close to his chest and the audience must take this ride alongside him and see just what this magician has planned.

The Review
It seems only a few years ago that magic seemed to be on all of Hollywood’s brain. In 2006 we saw both The Illusionist and The Prestige hit theaters at nearly exact same time. I would assume that most felt like The Prestige was the better film, but I have heard it argued either way in the past. I believe that both movies have found their fans due to the interest that most have in the art of illusion. Like a moth to a flame, I believe we all hope to see how a daring trick is accomplished. Yet, when we find out the truth, it always seems to rob us of the wonder that made the trick so much fun in the first place. It invites cynicism back into our life. Yet, in the film world, which is an illusion within itself, the art of illusion can be so much more when used as a narrative device. The act within an act becomes meta no matter what you try to do with it, and The Great Magician is in love with this idea. Daring to be real magic, illusion, sleight of hand, and anything else the audience wants, if Derek Yee’s recent film has one strong quality, it is the way that it engages its audience through wonder and adventure. While it may have its problems, The Great Magician delivers entertainment in a classical fashion. The film is intended to amaze, engage, and maybe get a chuckle out of the audience along the way.

The film is directed by the previously mentioned Derek Yee, who has developed a fairly positive reputation within recent years. He is acclaimed for his work on One Night in Mongkok and there have been many who have also sang his praises for Shinjuku Incident (2009) which starred Jackie Chan. He is a true veteran of the industry and is one of the old-guards from the glory days of Hong Kong who is trying to adapt and translate himself into this very new marketplace within China. While the current slate of Chinese films that are hitting US shores have been more about flag waving and overly complicated historical plots, The Magician finds a nice balance between what worked in Hong Kong’s past while also appealing to the “big” aspirations of the current Chinese marketplace. The movie does well by focusing less on being a vast epic, despite being a period piece with an astounding look, and more on being a work of pure entertainment. Mixing in the childlike wonder of what could be the supernatural (or clever tricks) along with some witty humor and silly subplots, The Great Magician stands out as a true adventure film. While it may not hop around the globe or lead the audience into uncharted areas, it manages to grab the audience and begs them to have fun while it takes them on its trip into the world of magic.

Although it probably isn’t expected of a Derek Yee film, there is a great deal of humor within the movie. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem as if it would lend itself to a heavy dose of humor, but the movie finds surprising ways to incorporate a lot of comedy into the plot. Most of the secondary characters step into the film to garner laughs, and in doing this the story manages to remain rather lighthearted. Tony Leung is also instrumental in keeping things rather breezy. While still delivering upon the requisite drama needed, Leung also manages to be completely charismatic in everything that he does. Playing dress-up in numerous scenes, Leung seems as if he is having a blast within this rather silly role – and his enthusiasm is infectious. Chang Wan Lau, who plays Bully Lei, is the other standout from the main cast. Viewers may remember him from films such as Mad Detective (he played the titular detective), Full Alert, or Running Out of Time, but this is definitely a role that stands out within his filmography. Playing the lovable buffoon who doesn’t even realize his own missteps, the character would seem most easily presented as a villain, but he instead comes across as far too lovably goofy for that. The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces, including Xun Zhou who plays the primary love interest, and most do acquit themselves well, but the two mega-stars are the ones who continually draw the most attention.

The movie is about as polished as modern Chinese cinema gets. It captures the oldschool aesthetic of Hong Kong films that used to be shot entirely on obvious movie sers along with the majestic and epic beauty that these big budget Chinese films generally have. Thankfully, that doesn’t just mean that this movie is littered with poor CGI. In fact, if there is CGI at work throughout the majority of The Great Magician, it is mostly used to expand the world that our film takes place in. With that said, there is one jokey sequence involving a man whose hands swell up five times their regular size, but such a sequence is so tongue-in-cheek that all is easily forgiven. While the budget for The Great Magician may not be the highest in recent history, although I’m sure it was a decent sum, the movie does look absolutely spectacular. The sets are very down-to-earth, but at the same time everything seems to take place in a heightened state of reality. The theater that the movie revolves around, for instance, literally seems to be in the center of town. Not only does everything that our characters do seem to revolve around this one area, it would appear that everything within this small village takes place around it as well. Ultimately, the movie has a large scale to it, but the narrative remains rather centralized.

The Conclusion
Granted, I have talked a lot about the positives in The Great Magician and very little about its drawbacks. Unfortunately, the movie does try to cram a few too many characters into the story for its own good. Several secondary characters only show up to take up screen time. The characters dragged into the plot, along with some of the twists and turns that occur, might confuse some members of the audience. However, for my money, the good-hearted fun of the movie tends to overshadow this. I would say it’s certainly worth checking out. I give it a four out of five.

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