Director: Derek Yee
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lau Ching Wan, Yan Ni, Zhou Xun
Chang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is a skilled magician who has come to town for one reason, to find his kidnapped fiance Yin (Zhou Xun). Turns out that she is the object of affection of a local warlord, Bully Lei (Lau Ching Wan) and he is seriously smitten. Teaming up with revolutionaries who also have comrades captured, Chang sets out to use his magician expertise to get back his girl and prove he is the world’s finest illusionist. But after having been gone so long, does the abandoned Yin even wish to go with him? And is Bully Lei truly the oppressive figure make him out to be?
Tony Leung leads an all-star cast in Derek Yee’s latest historical picture. As Chang he is cool, confident, and analytical and he turns in a solid performance. His acting is practiced, but lacks the finesse of his more acclaimed roles. Zhou Xun is alright as Yin, she is certainly pretty but her character is a bit stiff. She handles a few action scenes, or rather her stunt person does, but she’s more mysterious than Chang and no real attempt to explain her motivations is made. Lau Ching Wan is very entertaining as Lei, he’s funny, exaggerated, and seemed to have quite a lot of fun playing the warlord who seems to have a heart of gold.
Derek Yee directs a good looking film; big sets and many outdoor locations are evident and populated on a scale that many other Mainland films seem unable to do. There are pacing problems as the plot seems to go many places but rarely stays focused, resulting in a film that is nearly 2 hours long but should have been 20 minutes leaner. There is also a subplot featuring a Japanese conspiracy that is totally unnecessary and would have been better on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, the lack of focus hurts the film much more than it should considering the decent acting performances. The material simply isn’t on par with the talent.
The magic consists of some real hand magic via Tony, and the magic of movies for the more extravagant illusions. Tony performs smoothly and I did enjoy seeing the wonder on cast members’ faces. Like seeing children react to magic, I find that the magic itself does not really impress me, but its effects on others do. An odd statement, but perhaps I am getting a bit too cynical in my age.
At times serious, but generally comedic, The Great Magician was an odd little movie. It has huge stars, a competent director, and a solid look, but fails to provide compelling cinema. Its tone tries to be somewhere between a historical drama and wacky character comedy and the result is a nice looking film, but sorely lacking in structure and pacing. It’s a shame considering the talent involved, but the fault lies directly on the screenplay. It could have been an interesting film with a different take, but unfortunately this is what we got. Not a bad film by any stretch, just a missed opportunity and poorly executed.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: The Lion Roars, The Illusionist, and/or Trick
Special thanks to Well Go USA for providing a viewing copy!