The Great Magician (Daai mo seut si)

Hong Kong (2012) Dir. Derek Yee

At the turn of the 20th century in China the warlord Bully Lei (Lau Ching-Wan) lives up to his name with his mistreatment of the locals but has met his match in the form of his prospective seventh wife Liu Yin (Zhou Xun) who he has kidnapped in the hope she will mellow in time. Naturally Yin is resistant to the idea but only stays with Bully until her mysteriously missing father Liu Wan-Yao (Paul Chun) is found and her equally absent fiancé returns. Meanwhile Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) a top illusionist who has been perfecting his craft across Europe, arrives in town to showcase his skills to the locals. But Chang has a hidden agenda – to bring down Bully and reclaim the love of the fiancée he left behind…

Derek Yee is more well known for his taut crime thrillers such as One Night In Mongkok, Protégé and Jackie Chan’s Shinjuku Incident, so to learn he has tried his hand at comedy already makes this film something of a curiosity. But overshadowing this but a huge margin for devoted Asian film fans is the small fact that not only does this mark the return to the big screen after a three year absence of the great Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (last seen in John Woo’s Red Cliff double bill) but he is teamed up with the equally prolific and respected Lau Ching-Wan, a pairing which is worth the price of admission alone. Throw in one of China’s hottest young female properties in Zhou Xun and you have a film experience which can’t miss. Right?

Well, overall no. The Great Magician isn’t a bad film at all. It’s a very enjoyable one and is very well made by someone not used to employing overt fantasy aspects into his films like magic. But it is let down by a disjointed and confusing script which doesn’t quite have the legs to make it to the end of the film’s 128 minute running time. Derek Yee and his screenwriters have tried to throw too much into the mixing bowl to keep interest high when the basic premise is more than enough and could have been told inside 95 minutes at the most. Our hero Chang doesn’t even appear until after the thirty minute mark with the preceding time used to establish Bully, his six wives – including a great comic turn from veteran Yan Ni as Third Wife – and Bully’s underlings lead by shady right hand man Liu Kun-Shan (Wu Gang). There is also a subplot which goes nowhere featuring a Japanese movie maker Mitearai (Sawada Kenya) who also peddles weapons and another equally unfinished thread featuring brother and sister club owners Li Feng-jen (Lam Suet) and Li Chiao (Wang Ziwen) whose premises Chang buys into to use as his base.

In what is supposed to be a tale of two rivals, Chang and Bully end up spending most of their screen time on the same side even when Chang’s identity as Yin’s fiancée is revealed. Before this we have the standard set up of Bully asking for tips on how to woo yin from Chang who goes along with it, trying to sabotage Bully’s chances but inexplicably warming Yin’s icy cold heart towards him. It would appear that Chang and his men are not the only ones looking to dispose of the governing Bully, with the main culprits right under his nose. Or so it would appear. This is where the script seems to give up making sense and starts tripping over itself in the final sprint towards the finale. A textbook case of “less is more”. But while the story is still within the boundaries of cohesion it is a lot of fun. The comedy isn’t necessarily laugh out loud funny but amusing enough thanks to the performances of the eager cast.  

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai doesn’t miss a beat upon his return and looking at how skilfully he pulls of the slight of hand magic tricks in the film, one wonders if he used that time away to perfect his act, such is the verisimilitude of his actions. Once again his boyish looks charm the audience as he does the ladies in the film, while Lau Ching-Wan’s near pantomime villain Bully, complete with the bushy moustache, is the perfect foil for Chang. It shouldn’t need saying but every second these two great veterans are on screen together is pure gold from the timing and natural feel of their banter to the physical responses. Sadly Zhou Xun, while very watchable as always, isn’t required to do much more than look stony faced – aside from a couple of brief comedy martial arts spots – with her appearance and demeanour putting her across more as a villainess than the nominal heroine. Making up for this is Yan Ni as Third Wife, the only one to get any attention from both Bully and the script, who looks to be having as much fun hamming it up as we get from watching her. Also look out for cameos from directors Tsui Hark and Vincent Kok and heartthrob actor Daniel Wu.

The Great Magician has al the look and promise of a big blockbuster hit and strives to deliver this on the most part, but the unfocused and heavily burdened script threatens to negate these ambitions. Thanks to the two legendary leads this an enjoyable enough watch but the main conclusion after watching this film is that maybe Derek Yee should stick to gritty crime thrillers. Earnest but flawed effort.