Uncharted Cinema #3: The Great Magician


Tung-Shing Yee, Hong Kong, 2011, 128 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I picture this one being very similar to the Detective Dee films. A CGI martial arts mystery/action/drama. I’m not a huge fan of those films. they have too much CGI, claustrophobic cinematography, and messy scripts. Maybe this one will be better!

After: Well, it turns out The Great Magician is very similar to the Detective Dee series. If you liked those, you would like this. And the inverse, in my case, is also true. I found it strange how similar they were because, as far as I could tell, the films don’t share any creative talent. Maybe movies like this are just the style of popular cinema produced in the Hollywood of China and Hong Kong? (Often referred to as Chinawood. No, I’m not making this stuff up, folks!)

Whatever the case, one must, as always, attempt to judge a film on its own merits before comparing it to others. This one is about a time in China when the country is on the brink of change. Warlords hold power, a people’s revolution has just been squashed, and foreign powers are vying for a foothold into the nation.

At the center of all this stands Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau), one of the Warlords central to the conflict. But he is more concerned with gaining the love of Yin (Xun Zhou), who he wants to make his seventh wife. The first six of whom add some comic relief to the film.

Coming into the picture late is the titular magician, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung). His skill and renown in magic are unparalleled, but what is his true motivation? We soon come to realize that he is the ex-fiance of Yin, as well a student of the revolution who wants to use his magic skills to kidnap Bully Lei. The tension between Bully, Chang, and Yin is what drives the film.

Unfortunately, there is so much more going on than just that, and the film drowns in sub-plots and extraneous dialog. The craft of the film making isn’t enough to save it. There is far too much CGI, both in the magic, the martial arts, and the period sets and action sequences. The cinematography is odd and muddy. It felt almost like I was watching a video game be played instead of watching a film.

The acting all around is fine, as well as some of the old-fashioned slapstick comedy. If the film concentrated more on the parts that worked, instead of putting in everything but the kitchen sink, then it would have been much better. As it is now, the film is a dreary mess with some fun things trying to peak through. Unfortunately, they were snuffed out before I had a chance to enjoy them.

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