The Great Magician (2012)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2014-06-12
Summary: Plenty of star power
“The Great Magician” has star power to burn, beginning with Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and including much of the cast. Lau is Bully Lei, brutal warlord and obsessive magic fan; Leung is Zhang Xian, master magician just returned from Europe and clandestine activist for the republic. Lei kidnapped Liu Yin (Zhou Xun) and wants to make her his seventh wife but she is the secret lover Zhang left behind while wowing them in Europe. Liu’s father is a prisoner of Bully Lei’s subordinate who, in a nod to one of the evergreen tropes of Hong Kong action cinema, wants to get a secret document from him. The henchman, Butler Liu, is a talented trickster using magic to recruit starving peasants into Bully Lei’s army even though he can’t pay them.

The plot is simple but effective enough and allows plenty of room for the two male leads to show why they are movie stars. Questions are raised and answered. The most important one is “who gets the girl?”. Zhou Xun is implacably forthright and honorable as the seventh wife to be, easily keeping Bully Lei at bay while trying to find her father and obliquely quizzing Chang regarding his current feelings toward her. She is an excellent straight-laced foil for the sly but not stupid Bully Lei and for the more serious but playing for laughs as a distraction magician Chang. At one point, for example, she asks each of them, “If your mother and I were both drowning, who would you save?” The men avoid the question and also exasperate her by answering that since both of their mothers are strong swimmers, each would save Liu since mom could take care of herself.

Other questions that are posed along the way include whether the republic will unite China to defeat the warlords and present a united front against the invading Japanese; will Bully Lei, who is conniving with the Japanese to get tanks and planes, wind up on the right side of history; and whether Bully’s third wife (played to shrill, shrewish perfection by Yan Ni) could be any more annoying. In the last case the answer is no.

A recurrent theme is that magic and movies are both entertainments that are based on an audience prepared to accept the impossible, bending time and space; ones that audiences are knowingly fooled by what is presented—the willing suspension of disbelief so that rabbits may well be pulled from hats and illiterate military hooligans can become stalwart defenders of the republic.
Reviewer Score: 7