A co-production of China and Hong Kong, the film centers around Chang Hsien (Tony Leung, Infernal Affairs, Red Cliff and roughly half of Wong Kar Wai’s output), a stranger who swoops into a little village in the early 1900s and wows its residents with his amazing tricks. But don’t call him a trickster — he prefers “dream maker.”
The villagers sure could use some, as they’re lorded over by an unscrupulous general, the appropriately named Bully (Lau Ching-wan, Mad Detective) who keeps seven wives. The most recent, incidentally (Zhou Xun, Cloud Atlas), is the magician’s true love. He vows to save her, in part with a plan to kidnap Bully during a performance at Chang Hsien’s newly established magic theater, complete with not only trap doors on the stage, but in the plush seating on the front row.
Directed by Triple Tap’s Derek Yee, The Great Magician works best when the razzle-dazzle of illusions gets pushed to the forefront, which is roughly the first hour. The back half suffers, as many Asian films do (especially period pieces), by sheer overlength (this one tips the time scales at two hours and eight minutes), and turning those sequences of magic into — voila! — romance.
It’s not that Leung and Xun don’t enjoy screen chemistry, but Leung’s so charismatic on his own; for a long time, he is on his own, carrying the film right along with him. Yee’s light comic touch, however, sustains overall goodwill throughout. —Rod Lott