I’ve always liked magic. As a kid, I even gave it a go, but I was never the showman I hoped I’d be. Magicians have to be consummate entertainers willing to put themselves out there knowing all the while that the sleight of hand relies entirely on them – no amount of fancy glitter or smoke can salvage a trick gone bad. In their own humble way, films are perhaps the most complete magic act out there – they require an audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to be swept up by the play of light cleverly situated between all of the pieces of the magical puzzle. When it’s done right, it quickly becomes the kind of thing you want to share with friends and family. When it’s done wrong, it’s something you moan and groan at until the credits roll.
THE GREAT MAGICIAN is far from ‘great,’ but it’s good enough entertainment for a lazy afternoon or, better, a quiet evening in with the kids.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Zhang Xian (played by the likeable Tony Leung) is more than just a magician hoping to throw a few abracadabras into a crowd. Walking out of a crowd on a busy street, he bests the local magic act, all with the secret purpose of securing a local venue. What is his true secret? He’s back to get the girl he left behind – loved, even – in the worst vanishing act of his career; and it’ll take surviving not only a confrontation with the local warlord but also outsmarting elements trying to put China under Japanese control in order for this take to reach its happy ending!
Adapted from the novel by Zhang Haifan, THE GREAT MAGICIAN tries too hard to win over its audience with some shticky comedy the likes of which North America hasn’t seen since the days of the Three Stooges or (perhaps more aptly) Abbott & Costello or the Marx Brothers. It’s a grand comedy of errors – flirting desperately with elements of farce – but, in doing so, it’s far too heavily weighted down with a cast of characters that feels much larger than it need be. Award-winning director Derek Yee populates the motion picture with tones of wonderful smaller moments that end up being too far apart because of far too many unimportant bigger moments that don’t deliver as well as they should.
Still, all of the players – Leung and his co-horts including Lau Ching-wan as the appropriately-named warlord Bully Lei and the lovely Zhou Xun as Lin (a love interest who spends most of the film sparring with both romantic leads) – embrace their right parts and give it enough honest respect that it’s hard not to like MAGICIAN. What starts out seemingly as another heavy period piece quickly becomes something that the audience possibly never expected, and that’s some of the beauty of the flick: it’s all one big magic act where you’re waiting for the big reveal. Watching these three work together is a wonderful experience, indeed; and when they’re away for too long you probably (like I did) find yourself wishing they were back.
Some of the politics of the picture might not make perfect sense to American audiences. Suffice it to say, it took me a few moments to let it all sink in. Once it did, I rolled with it, and I think most folks will do likewise. If you like magic, you could do far worse than spend a single evening with THE GREAT MAGICIAN.
THE GREAT MAGICIAN is produced by Bona International Film Group, Emperor Motion Pictures, and Film Unlimited. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Well Go USA. For those needing to know, this is a Mandarin-spoken language picture, but there is either an English-dubbed or English-subtitled version available. As for the technical specifications, the picture looks and sounds excellent, and clearly no expense was shared in capturing this silly-little-adventure on film. As is often the case with these foreign imports, there are no substantive extras available – there’s a brief ‘making of’ featurette along with the theatrical trailers, but the magic ends right there, folks.
RECOMMENDED. No, it may not all be perfect magic, but there’s so much in THE GREAT MAGICIAN that it’s a benign charm. Sure, it’s much too long to be a fully effective period-piece caper; and, yes, it’s way too bloated to be the harmless farce all involved intended for it to be; but it’s still effective in its own right. Tony Leung does what he can to steal the show, but it’s a winning ensemble that makes the trick work just the way a good magician would’ve intended. I would’ve named it “The Good Magician” to soften up the expectations. I also would’ve cut out at least thirty minutes of some of the lesser bumbling. And maybe – just maybe – it would’ve worked better.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with an advance DVD copy of THE GREAT MAGICIAN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.