Too many potions muddle the alchemy in “The Great Magician,” a picaresque romance set around the rivalry between a warlord and a conjurer in 1920s China. Absent the psychological tension, technical showmanship and stylistic sleight-of-hand of “The Prestige,” this yarn from Hong Kong writer-helmer Derek Yee is unable to harmonize a mix of political intrigue and vaudevillian humor, while an excess of magic acts keeps the sterling cast too physically busy to breathe feeling into their roles. Out of touch with contempo urban tastes, the pic is unlikely to conjure dazzling B.O. in China or satisfy overseas cravings for martial arts-centric titles.
Northern China in the ’20s is embroiled in territorial feuds between warlords, one of whom is is Lei Daniu, aka Bully (Sean Lau Ching-wan), who uses the mentalist skills of his butler, Liu Kunshan (Wu Gang), to recruit soldiers. Bully is besotted with pretty acrobat Yin (Zhou Xun), whom he captured and forcibly made his seventh concubine while her fiance was in Europe. Meanwhile, Yin’s magician father, Liu Wanyao (the helmer’s brother, Paul Chun), has disappeared.
When the mysterious Zhang Xian (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) arrives in Beijing to stage spectacular magic shows, Bully seeks his help to impress the frosty Yin. To his consternation, the suave and Westernized Zhang is more beguiling than he bargained for.
ased on Zhang Haifan’s novel of the same title, the screenplay by Yee, Chun Tin-nam and Lau Ho-leung plays down the book’s dramatization of the cultural encounter between Western and Eastern magic. In fact, more plot similarities can be found with Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” though without that film’s sustained mystique and ingenious plotting. Yin’s divided affections never build to a full-blown romantic triangle; the main trio’s first encounter arrives a leisurely half-hour after the scene is set and periphery characters are introduced. The midsection, in which Bully and Zhang try to suss each other out, coasts on the playful charm of the two actors, but delivers no high-concept feats. Eventually, the lead story is overtaken by inane subplots involving a lost alchemy formula, Japanese spies masquerading as filmmakers, and a Manchurian monarchist conspiracy.
The pic attempts to re-create the rapture of spectatorship in an era when magic appears as powerful as sorcery to a more gullible public. It works initially, such as when Zhang plays with fire or nimbly manipulates silk-screen paintings to re-enact his romantic past. However, rather than focusing on a few grand setpieces, the film features wall-to-wall magic, some of which is purely gimmicky, which inevitably strips it of mystery.
An exploration of magic and cinema as parallel mediums, capable of enchanting as well as deluding the masses, has as much relevance now as it did in ’20s China, which also featured a burgeoning economy that bred unprecedented avarice and, with it, new levels of con artistry. Yee tentatively reflects on this phenomenon, but his tendency to moralize (obvious also in his “Protege” and “Shinjuku Incident”) brings the film to a banal conclusion.
Perfs are sound but not exceptional. Leung, who last graced the screen in 2009’s “Red Cliff II,” looks a bit old for the Casanova role, and is initially rather wooden; he doesn’t warm up until he’s left alone to banter with Lau. Gamine Zhou easily convinces as a femme to die for, but doesn’t invite deeper examination of her character or thoughts. Lau offers the most consistent turn as a wild card who keeps one guessing about his true nature until the end. Supporting turns by Wu (who had so much more presence in “Ip Man”) and Yan (brassy as usual), plus cameos by Daniel Wu, Alex Fong and Tsui Hark, only mildly enhance the mix.
Visual effects are refined without being tastelessly showy, and Yee Chung-man’s costumes are stylishly color-coordinated with the lush decor. Production design and lighting look particularly rich and luminous, paying loving homage to the folksy northern ambience and studio-set look of Li Han-hsiang’s 1970s warlord comedy-satires and trickster capers.
Stephen Tung Wai’s action choreography serviceably integrates magic into martial arts, but larger-scale street fights are pedestrian.