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March 14, 2013

The Great Magician

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Daai mo seut si
Derek Yee - 2011
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There is much to enjoy in Derek Yee's The Great Magician. In a movie about illusions, my favorite scene is of that most trusting of audiences, a group of children. The warlord known as Bully Lei has invited a slew of young children into the theater to watch a performance by the legendary magician, Chang Hsien. For the day's performance, Chang presents an Arabian Nights fantasy with Chang making an entrance on a flying carpet. As part of the performance, a group of female dancers appear in costumes with bare midriffs. Lei is temporarily mesmerized by the women until he turns around to command the children to cover their eyes. Yee cuts to a shot of some of the children obeying the orders, while some of the boys are seen gleefully peeking between their fingers. While much of the story is played for laughs, this one seen is especially joyful.

The illusions, of course, are not limited to the stage. It's little surprise that not everyone is what they appear to be. Chang hopes to reunite with his former fiancee, Yin, now the seventh wife of Lei. The film takes place at an unspecified time in the 1910s, with various warlords fighting with and against each other, while Japan is working to reinstall the monarchy as a puppet government. While rival magicians work sleight of hand, the real illusions are those involving love and power.

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The biggest illusion is the romantic rivalry. Both Chang and Lei believe that only they know the way to Yin's heart, and can offer true happiness. Yin remains firmly ambivalent about both men, guided by pragmatism rather than romance. With her high collared dresses as Yin, Zhou Xun plays the often aloof foil to the showier turns of Lau Ching-wan as Lei and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in the title role.

The first scene is of a crowd of prisoners, induced to joining Lei's army with magic tricks that include showers of coins and bread, as well as promises of a better life. Another kind of hunger is on display when Chang performs a trick in which one of Lei's wives is presented with jewelry. Immediately, the other wives clamor to have Chang perform with them, with the last wife presented with a giant sapphire ring.

Illusion is also played with regarding screen images. Lei begins a movie making venture with some Japanese businessmen. In addition to a couple of scenes of audiences watching movies for the first time, a scene that is certainly the fantasy of many studio executives has producer Lei shooting his director. There's even a satirical wink at 3-D. One of Chang's acts involves telling a story with paintings that change as he moves the frame around, ending with what appears to be a real tear coming from the eye of the woman in the portrait. Chang and Lei also appear to fight, seen in shadow against a stage curtain.

For Derek Yee, this is an uncharacteristically light film, with most of the story played for laughs, and something resembling a happy ending. Adding to the fun are Lam Suet, always a joy to see, as the theater owner, and Tsui Hark as a fierce, hook-handed general. The extensive "Making of" supplements discuss the presence of a professional magician who advised Tony Leung's performance and taught him how to do some of the tricks seen in the film. How much of the magic is CGI, traditional cinematic tricks, or actual prestidigitation, I can't say for certain. The best trick in The Great Magician is convincing the viewer that all things are possible.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 14, 2013 08:45 AM