The Great Magician may not live up to its lofty title, but veteran Derek Yee brings a top-notch cast, special effects, comedy and spectacle to this magical outing that occasionally shows its sleight of hand.
Derek Yee has been in the film industry for decades, playing in over forty films between 1975 and 1986 during the years when the Shaw Brothers were still a thing. Yee made the transition to direction almost seamlessly, with 1986’s The Lunatics earning him the first of many Hong Kong Film Award nominations for Best Director, an award he won a few years later for the classic C’est la vie, mon chéri. Having enjoyed a bit of success on the action-crime-dramas Protégé and Shinjuku Incident, Yee returns to a more comedic and frenetic take on the action genre.
Set in the 1920s in Northern China, during the period in which feuds between warlords are taking place, one such lord Lei Daniu (Sean Lau Ching-wan), also known as “Bully”, uses butler Liu Kunshan’s (Wu Gang) magic trickery to recruit soldiers to his ranks. Yet what he really hopes to do is win over the affections of his forced seventh concubine Liu Yin (Zhou Xun). When the mysterious Zhang Xian (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) arrives in town with his magic shows, Bully hires him to help impress the disinterested Yin, not knowing that he has just opened up a can of worms.
While The Great Magician is clearly steeped in some of the more traditionally epic period martial arts films of the last few decades, a natural consequence of director Yee’s years in the business, it is easy to draw parallels with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige as well. While the goal here is not to obfuscate the truth from the audience until the last minute, like magic tricks themselves, The Great Magician lets it all hang out, content to make the act of magic in the 1920s impressive to a modern audience, while drawing analogies to the political trickery that was used to dupe the masses in China at the time. This is a neat trick in itself, and as just as much of the appeal of this set-up comes from the charm of its lead Tony Leung Chiu-wai as it does from any of the narrative elements. Yet in the first act, the film is in search of an anchor, setting up a number of stylistic choices that will only pay-off later in the film.
The Great Magician really dazzles when the film changes gear and becomes a buddy comedy between Leung and the highly-watchable Sean Lau Ching-wan, who make such a terrific team that you’ll wish the whole film had been their focus. Indeed, there are times when their double-act is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Yet even these performances are inconsistent, and some of the cameo appearances of Daniel Wu, Alex Fong and the legendary Tsui Hark smack of gimmickry. Yet what ultimately disappoints is the conclusion, a predictably naff affair that wraps things up too neatly, without the satisfaction that comes with a magician’s prestige. A visually impressive affair, and one that should be lauded for trying something new with a well-worn genre, but one that ultimately has more razzle than dazzle.
The Great Magician was released in Australia on 12 January 2012 from Dream Movie.