The Great Magician

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Back at the turn of the year, I mentioned a few films that I was really looking forward to seeing, and at last one of them has finally been released on DVD and available for my perusal.  Derek Yee is not the most prolific of Hong Kong film makers, but his track record is actually pretty darn high.  Except “Triple Tap” his last effort which was terrible.  But we are all allowed to make a mistake or two, so I came in to this dazzled by the exceptional cast and subject matter.  How did it turn out?  Read on my small but loyal audience to find out.

The Great Magician” of the title is Zhang Xian (Tony Leung) who has returned to a 1916 China that is currently being run by regional Warlords after the fall of the Qing Dynasty.  One of these Warlords, Bully Lei (Lau Ching-wan) has taken Zhang’s fiancé Yin (Zhou Xun) as his unwilling concubine, but she is only hanging around to try and get Bully to release her captive father (who also is Zhang’s Mentor).  To complicate matters even more, Zhang is being backed by a gang of Republican rebels who wish to remove the Warlords, and Bully is being manipulated by the Japanese and his own top Lieutenant who is more interested in a return of the Empire.  Its complicated stuff, full of twists and turns and red herrings and double crosses.  As well as the love triangle – can Zhang win Yin back, or will Bully finally win her heart?

I have hardly covered the labyrinthine plot there in my synopsis, and if that was what the film was all about, I think I would have been happy.  The problem is that the first half of the film is very much in this vein, only to turn into a rather lacklustre comedy in the second half.  It isn’t that I am unused to these shifts of genre in Asian Cinema, but in this case it really made the film totally unbalanced, and to be honest, after about 90 minutes actually rather boring.  I have also read a couple of reviews (as well as being told by someone whose opinion I respect greatly), that the storyline matched that of the under-rated “The Illusionist”.  Now whilst the central idea of a Magician coming back to rescue his ex-lover from a Despot is pretty much the same, they way things are played out is totally different – and they are both inspired by totally different sources.

The star of the show for me was undoubtedly Lau Ching-wan, who is obviously having a huge amount of fun with the role.  He plays the illiterate Warlord mostly for laughs, coming across as a bit of a bumbling fool, but at perfect moments he shows just how smart he really is.  Little gets past him despite his buffoonery, whether it be shown by a knowing phrase, a withering look, or in the best example – an ‘accidental’ gunshot to the forehead.

Tony Leung’s performance is more difficult.  The man has hardly been seen on screen for three years, having been tied up with “The Gandmasters” (apparently I am going to have to wait until this time next year to see it now), and I get the feeling he was really there to pick up a well deserved pay check – he is not horrible by any means, but much of his role seems to be relying on his undoubted charm.  Having said that, when the male leads get on screen together, be it as initial rivals, or eventually as unwitting buddies, they are very much worth watching.

The biggest disappointment of all is Zhou Xun, who after her magnificent initial scene is used to no great effect, and whilst she is certainly more than eye candy or indeed not a damsel in distress, her role in proceedings seems muted, and never really gets to play up the “who will she choose” aspect of the love triangle.  The script does not help her either, as it makes the odd decision to not only have a love triangle that really could only have one definitive outcome, but then decides that no decision at all is a worthwhile conclusion for two hours of our time.

Visually the film is a spectacle, and the magic scenes are very well done, albeit with the use of camera trickery and not a little CGI.  I was thrown a little by Chang being very much the Western style stage Magician, with all the usual props and tricks (which is fair enough when you think he has been in Europe a number of years, perfecting his art – in itself a nice play on many Western Magicians of the era who did the opposite.  Though it seems this was very much the raison d’être of the source novel), but it all works out well as Leung is a very competent performer who knows how to work a crowd.  There is some nice supporting work too – I would love to have seen a little more of Lam Suet and his Daughter, owners of the theatre that Zhang takes over, and its always nice to spot a little unexpected cameo from the great Tsui Hark.

The other flaw in the film is that it tries to pack an awful lot in, that is never really bought to any great conclusion.  There is a subplot with the Japanese which is a meta-narrative on how early cinema is going to change entertainment, and that the days of stagecraft are numbered, but little is done with this.  More annoying is the lieutenant of Bully, who uses magic tricks to coerce people into the army, but is actually playing his own game.  He is set up to be the obvious villain of the piece, but is suddenly taken off the table, given a totally new back story, and is basically forgotten about.  Sure I know about misdirection, but this just seemed wasteful, and an example of how the second half of the film just didn’t meet the expectations of the first.

It is yet another film that is far from horrible – there is plenty to enjoy here, but it is far less than the sum of it’s parts.  There are two quite wonderful scenes, and at least one stellar performance.  But in the final analysis, the film ends up not only disappointing, but actually a bit of a unfulfilling mess.  I wanted and expected a lot more from the film, and as much as it pains me, I’ll give it only a Mildly Recommended.

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