The anniversary of the Chinese 1911 Revolution being just behind us doesn't mean that period films of that era have come to a full stop. Writer-director Derek Yee throws in his hat to conjure a thriller with magic at the forefront, following in the footsteps of films such as The Prestige, The Illusionist and Death Defying Acts, which weaved mystery, romance and in this case political intrigue at a time when China was dominated by warlords, with foreign powers ala Imperial Japan at bay eager to gain a foothold in the Middle Kingdom through veiled diplomacy involving arms trading with selected warlords.
Teaming with co-writers Chun Tin Nam and Lau Ho Leung who between them have written some of the largest Chinese blockbusters from Painted Skin to Bodyguards and Assassins, The Great Magician centres around a scholar turned magician trained in Europe, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) returning to China to score multiple goals, having to rescue his mentor Liu Wanyao (Paul Chun)and reclaim the affections of his one time fiancée Yin (Zhou Xun),both of whom are now under the clutches of the warlord Bully Lei (Lau Ching Wan) and his evil bootlicking minion Kunshan (Wu Gang). Allying with revolutionaries hell bent on capturing Bully Lei, Chang Hsien anchors the magic show at a newly acquired theatre, and the troupe patiently waits for their bait to bite, with an elaborate kidnapping scheme in place to barter and demand terms for the return of a major player in town.
But things hardly ever go according to plan, and here's where The Great Magician shines when both Tony Leung and Lau Ching Wan get to grace the screen together (god knows when was the last time),with their characters trading barbs, suspicion and turning from would be adversaries to unsuspecting friends especially when the topic of true love comes up, with the generalissimo seeking the magician's help to turn on the charms in order to woo his "7th wife ". There's comedy, romance and plenty of magical tricks on display here when the stories shifts downgear to allow Lau Ching-wan to work his acting chops, from going over the top in his ridiculously decorated army uniform and playing the fool as the ruthless warlord in what would be a very sly attempt at downplaying his threat to his other 7 warlord allies (made up of cameos like vincent Kok and Tsui Hark),to being the puppy dog desperate to win the heart of Yin.
In fact his story arc is the more entertaining of the lot, especially since Tony Leung's character got bogged down by politicking with his comrades whether to take down Bully Lei or otherwise, compromised by Chang Hsien's growing admiration for a man who is definitely more than meets the eye. This constant guessing of intentions from all sides involving all the major multi-faceted characters, require steep attention to keep track of who's with whom, with Survivor-isque styled plotting, double-crossing and double meanings in words spoken all keeping the intrigue to the final moments of the story, with both the macro socio-political level involving different political factions from the Japanese, Manchus and current warlords, and the micro personal-romantic level in the love triangle centering around Yin, while casting doubts as to who of the two suitors would be best for her, with each showing their relative shades of grey.
Eventually this focus led to subplots being unceremoniously dumped, such as the much talked about 7 magical wonders that were not properly developed and copped out at the end with a relatively lengthy through effectively preachy moment in a talk about superstition and ambition. And one thing about the magic in a film - there's almost always that degree of CG thrown in that would leave even believers skeptic about how the illusions got pulled off, although Tony Leung did have enough charm and charisma to make a believable Chang Hsien with enough tricks up his sleeve for street magic, or elaborate illusions done on stage with the painting manipulation trick being one of my favourites through which Derek Yee effectively told the background of all the lead characters in one fall swoop of a plot device.
The Great Magician is made up of moments that seemed more of an all boys club, with both Lau Ching Wan and Tony Leung owning the best bits of the film through their characters. Zhou Xun's Yin had far too little to do other than to gatecrash as the object of both their affections, with an acrobatic introduction that wowed and the rest of her scenes belonging more to supporting cast levels. She's capable of a lot more if only the story had an equally expanded and important role for her to play, other than to be held captive and unwilling to leave until the whereabouts of her father is known, and accounted for as safe.
Derek Yee helmed a film that had all the ingredients to be great, with an effective setup, wonderful performances all round, plenty of twists and turns, but alas that took longer than expected to develop and rubbed some shine off its prestige, not forgetting a little bit of a rip off from a comical trick already seen in The A-Team. Still, the casting alone should guarantee a stellar response to it, and it's recommended for its Let The Bullets Fly-ish lite-version feel to its plotting.