Without looking at the plot premises, The Great Magician 大魔術師 was already alluring with the people involved with this project. It has a stellar cast of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Lau Ching Wan and Zhou Xun. Three actors had all impress me with their performance in respective movies (Happy Together, Hero, Mad Detective, My Name is Fame, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate & The Message - just to name a few) in the past.
Beside the cast, The Great Magician is directed by Derek Yee. Like the cast, I enjoyed the director's previous works (C'est la vie, mon chéri, Full Throttle, Viva Erotica and Triple Tap) and I have yet to find a disappointing movie from him.
On a closer look, The Great Magician seemed to share a similar premise with Edward Norton's The Illusionist. A magician taking on a dictator for the affection on a woman. It's a pretty good movie and even if The Great Magician ends up as a rehash of The Illusionist, I am still looking forward to how this collaboration between Derek Yee, Tony Leung, Lau Ching Wan and Zhou Xun would turn out.
During the chaotic period after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the encroaching of Japanese forces, a mysterious magician Zhang Xian (Tony Leung) arrived at a town governed by General Lei Daniu (Lau Ching Wan). Anxious to win the affections of his seventh concubine Liu Yin (Zhou Xun), General Lei arranged a private performance at the theater that Zhang Xian is performing. Unbeknownst to General Lei, Zhang Xian was Liu Yin's fiancé who have left for overseas studies many years ago and is now back to rescue her.
To make matter worse, a bunch of Qing Dynasty officials and Japanese spies posing as filmmakers are trying to trick the simple minded General Lei to aid them in their cause. Revolutionists who are working in Zhang Xian's troop are attempting to kidnap the General Lei for the release of their jailed comrades. With all the dangers lurking around, the ignorant General Lei seeks advice from his rival in love. As the revelation draws closer, Zhang Xian soon realize that General Lei might not be the simpleton that he appears to be.
The Perspective - Movie Review of The Great Magician
Think of The Great Magician as a comedic version of The Illusionist with a weak storyline and it's not that funny. The ironic thing about The Great Magician could have been better if it just rehash The Illusionist from start till the end. It felt that halfway through the movie, the director had found out that The Great Magician was too similar to the Illusionist and decided to change everything in the second half of the movie that resemble the Edward Norton's movie. The result was a disjointed movie that finished in a disappointing fashion.
The first thing that the "changes" affected was the love story in The Great Magician. Instead of a love "heist" against overwhelming odds, it became a love triangle that didn't really fit into the story. The unlikely romance between Liu Yin and the General lacks chemistry while her tiff with Magician felt immature in that situation. Lau Ching Wan's dubious "evil" general role could have been given more layer to established some form of emotional anchor point but it's all pretty fluffy character setup for General Lei's character. Zhou Xun didn't have much to work on for her character that's torn in between the two male leads. Her dilemma came off more as indifferent and that's made it hard to feel for this love triangle. It really pale in comparison with Zhou Xun's previous movie Perhaps Love (which also featured her in a love triangle). One of the reasons why this movie couldn't go in depth with an emotional love triangle would be that it had to juggle with comedy and that would bring us to the second problem with this movie.
It didn't like a good choice for the director and these three main cast to embark on comedy. It's been reported that the director didn't want to slapstick comedy but for the four key personnel involved, it's been a long time since they dabble in comedy and it felt like they were out of their comedic depth in The Great Magician. Since comedy is subjective, all I would say that there was a few chuckles in this movie but nothing that stood out as hilarious.
But it's not all gloom and doom with this movie. The showmanship of magic performances was pretty impressive even in a movie where all the tricks could be done easily with special effects. That aspect relied heavily on Tony Leung's performance and on-screen charisma. Lau Ching Wan's role as the questionable simpleton was intriguing and could be given more emotional depth but sadly, it had to divert it's attention to humour that didn't really worked.
As a He Sui Pian 贺岁片 (Chinese New Year Movie), The Great Magician is one of the better choice to pass time with. But as a Derek Yee, Tony Leung, Zhou Xun and Lau Ching Wan collaboration, it's rather disappointing. It's particularly surprising coming from a director like Derek Yee as his movies are usually solid in building up characters / events and his stories generally have a good flow to it. Perhaps it's to cater to the China market (and censors) or it might seem that the director had learn his lesson from release a bleak movie during the Chinese New Year period with Protege but The Great Magician would definitely better if it was given a more somber spin.