The Great Magician 大魔術師
Period action comedy-drama
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 126 mins
Directed by Derek Yee (爾冬陞)
By Derek Elley
Wed, 25 January 2012, 09:30 AM (HKT)
Classy period comedy with meaty roles for its name cast. Asian events.
Northern China, early Republican Era. Ambitious warlord Lei Daniu (Lau Ching-wan) uses magic shows by his personal adjutant Liu Kunshan (Wu Gang) to convince people to sign up to his private army. In less than three months he's gained 5,000 new recruits, even though he doesn't have enough money to pay for them. Operating like a de facto emperor, Lei also maintains seven concubines, including pushy No. 3 (Yan Ni) and his latest acquisition, feisty No. 7, acrobat Liu Yin (Zhou Xun). Liu Yin refuses to sleep with him until she can see her father, Liu Wanyao (Paul Chun), who is held prisoner in the old city's jail and is being tortured by Wu Gang to hand over a secret ancient document, the Seven Sacred Methods (七聖法), by which one can control people's wills. Meanwhile, magician Zhang Xian (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) returns from making his name in Europe and buys a share of a teahouse from impoverished owner Li Fengren (Lam Suet) and his younger sister Li Jiao (Fiona Wang) where he sets up Chang's Magic Theatre. His spectacular combination of western and eastern skills trounces the competition from other magicians, like Chen Guo (Alex Fong Chung-sun), and attracts the attention of magic fan Lei. The plan of Zhang Xian, who is working with a cell of revolutionaries led by Li Yi (Wang Ziyi), is to kidnap Lei during a magic trick, but he's forced several times to abort the operation at the last moment. During one performance, however, he smuggles a message to Liu Yin - to whom he was engaged three years earlier but whom he left stranded when he suddenly went to Europe. Zhang Xian tells her he wants to help her rescue her father. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries want to kidnap Lei as he is seen as colluding with the Japanese, from whom he plans to buy some tanks to lead a military alliance with seven other warlords. As the undercover Japanese, led by "film director" Mite Sentaro (Sawada Kenya), play Lei along for their own ends, Zhang Xian starts a cat-and-mouse game of friendship with Lei to win his confidence.
With meaty roles for its large cast — especially Tony LEUNG Chiu-wai 梁朝偉 and LAU Ching-wan 劉青雲 as the cat-and-mouse leads — and sleight-of-hand its theme, The Great Magician 大魔術師 weaves two hours of engaging, star-driven entertainment. Mis-sold as a drama rather than as a light comedy with dramatic and action elements, it's the classiest production so far by Hong Kong actor-turned-director Derek Yee (One Nite in Mongkok 旺角黑夜 (2004), Protégé 門徒 (2007)), and the first to take him into the Chinese costume genre and away from Hong Kong-set thrillers and melodramas. On a technical level the movie is a quality job at every level, with fluid editing by KWONG Chi-leung 鄺志良, versatile scoring by Leon KO 高世章 and beautiful chiaroscuro interiors by Japan's KITA Nobuyasu 北信康, who shot Yee's Shinjuku Incident 新宿事件 (2009) and has become MIIKE Takashi 三池崇史's recent d.p. of choice (Thirteen Assassins 十三人の刺客 (2010)). But it's the performances that power a film which could easily have become just an effects-driven vehicle with multiple guest stars providing decoration.
The script adheres to the basic elements of Mainland writer ZHANG Haifan 張海帆's 2009 novel, with western influences seeping into early Republican China and the theme of illusion being marshalled by the power-hungry to influence people's minds. Not unreasonably, Yee beefs up the filmy side, throwing in contemporary references that are also mirrored in some of the costumes, especially the cowboy hat, gun and holster of Lau's self-important warlord. Clearly modelled on comedian Michael HUI 許冠文's turn in The Warlord 大軍閥 (1972), though taken down a couple of dozen notches, Lau's Lei Daniu, who's not quite as stupid as he appears, is a clever construction by the actor which morphs from pomposity to a sympathetic individual during the course of the movie. The growing relationship between him and Leung's wily, always-in-control magician who's out to hoodwink him is the film's main delight.
As the woman between them, ZHOU Xun 周迅 brings her usual gamine toughness and composure to the table, striking sparks with Leung, while fellow Mainland actress YAN Ni 閆妮 (Cow 鬥牛 (2009)) has some brassy fun as a pushy concubine. It's a shame that WU Gang 吳剛 (The Case 箱子 (2007)), who's excellent as the warlord's oily adjutant, disappears during the middle going; and the role of Fiona WANG 王子文 (Cool Young 正・青春 (2010)), as an admirer of Leung's magician, could have profitably been beefed up. But in general the dramatic balance is about right and, befitting a New Year movie, a full complement of Hong Kong names pop up here and there (directors TSUI Hark 徐克, Vincent KOK 谷德昭 and Jamie LUK 陸劍明 as quarreling warlords, actors Daniel WU 吳彥祖 and LAM Suet 林雪 as a lieutenant and teahouse owner, etc).
The magic scenes, though numerous, are skilfully staged in a variety of styles, with visual effects subservient to what is going on between the characters off- and on-stage at the same time. Looking equally suave in a DJ or changpao, Leung handles the magic with aplomb, even when some of the tricks are clearly impossible.
ContactSales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: Hong Kong/China, 12 Jan 2012.
Presented by Bona Film Group (CN), Emperor Motion Pictures (HK), Bona Entertainment (CN). Produced by Film Unlimited (HK). Executive producers: Yu Dong, Albert Yeung, Jeffrey Chan. Producers: Peggy Lee, Mandy Law.
Script: Chun Tin-nam, Andy Lau Ho-leung, Derek Yee. Novel: Zhang Haifan (2009). Photography: Kita Nobuyasu. Editing: Kwong Chi-leung. Music: Leon Ko. Production designer: Zhen. W. Art director: Yi Zhenzhou. Costume design: Yee Chung-man, Jessie Dai, Ivy Chan. Action: Stephen Tung. Visual effects: Clement Cheng. Second unit direction: Jamie Luk. Magic consultation: Kong Tao-hoi.
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Zhang Xian), Lau Ching-wan (Lei Daniu/Bully Lei), Zhou Xun (Liu Yin, Lei Daniu's no. 7 concubine), Yan Ni (Lei Daniu's no. 3 concubine; Taga Group assassin), Wu Gang (Liu Kunshan, Lei Daniu's adjutant), Daniel Wu (Lieutenant Cai), Paul Chun (Liu Wan-yao, Liu Yin's father), Alex Fong Chung-sun (Chen Guo), Tsui Hark (hook-handed warlord), Vincent Kok (one-eyed warlord), Morris Rong (warlord with purple sash), Lam Suet (Li Fengren), Sawada Kenya (Mite Sentaro, the Japanese film director), Berg Ng (Zhang Xian's assistant), Wang Ziyi (Li Yi, the revolutionaries' leader), Fiona Wang (Li Jiao, Li Fengran's younger sister), Wang Yachao (Lei's officer), Tian Miao, Zhan Yashu, Wang Qi, Wang Xuan, Xu Haipeng (Lei Daniu's other concubine), Mura Kenichi (Taga Group's director), Qu Jingjing, Fan Shuran (Taga Group's female assassins), Zhao Weiqi (Taga Group's lead actor), Otsuka Masanobu, Hu Ninglin, Liu Ziwei, Yin Hailong, Guo Hui (Taga Group members), Zhang Dong, Wang Jun (Liu Kunshan's officers), Yu Guming, Zeng Shuai, Zhang Xiaoxi, Meng Wei (Lei Daniu's officers), Cheng Xiyu, Li Yiwen, Du Yani, Zou Jiali, Li Zhengjin, Jia Ning (maids), Luo Yichang, Niu Gaole (shulaibao performers), Wang Chong (Chen Guo's servant), Xia Dejun (revolutionary), Wang Wenjie, Ma Jing, Peng Qiusheng (Chang Hsien's other assistants), Zhang Guangqi, Chen Jinbang (pingtan performers), Yan Yanlong, Liu Fengyuan, Chi Cheng, Wu Zequan, Zhang Huaiyu, Fang Xiang, Feng Ziyan, Wang Mengting, Wu Jiang, Ye Changchun, Li Muzi, Ji Tao, Nina Li, Du Wenlong, Chen He, Zhang Tingting (revolutionaries), Kong Tao-hoi (warlord with brocaded sleeves), Jamie Luk, Keung Siu-leung, Lau Ho-leung (other warlords), Sun Baobao, Sun Jiaojiao (Liu Yin's maids), Yang Shulin, Wang Jie (inn owners), Shaolin Martial Arts School (children), Zhang Zimu (little girl), Huang Hongwei (sweetshop owner), Miao Xinyu, Ma Sha (belly dancers), Zhang Lisha (lady in market), Tan Jianchang (Ding, the warden), Zhang Pingyu, Zhang You, Wang Yi, Li Haosen (jailed revolutionaries), Liu Jie (Qing lord), Wang Liusheng, Lü Shuting, Que Baoli, Du Wu, Wang Liansheng, Zhao Dehe, Wang Zhenchen, Wu Fenglan, Shang Guowei, Guo Jiulong, Zhang Baofeng, Huang Wei (Qing nobles), Wu Guoqiang, Ye Yuchen, Yang Xiaolei (eunuchs), Liu Di, Ya Dan, Ji Li (fortune-tellers), Liu Tianchi (Madame Hua), Wang Yuan (steward), Song Xiaoying, Wang Xinyi, Hao Tingting, Li Manyi, Jiang Wanyu, Zhao Chi, Xi Huimei, Xie Yuxian, Jin Rong, Liu Lüting (prostitutes), Meng Fanjie, Liu Likun, Xiang Jia, Guo Jiayi, Wang Ruoxi, Wang Fei, Wang Weiwei, Yang Gangqiang, Xue Na, Ma Honghu, Wang Minglang (Taga Group assassins).