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 Wais output), a stranger who swoops into a little village in the early 1900s and wows its residents with his amazing tricks. But dont call him a trickster he prefers dream maker.
The villagers sure could use some, as theyre 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 magicians true love. He vows to save her, in part with a plan to kidnap Bully during a performance at Chang Hsiens 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 Taps 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.
Its not that Leung and Xun dont enjoy screen chemistry, but Leungs so charismatic on his own; for a long time, he is on his own, carrying the film right along with him. Yees light comic touch, however, sustains overall goodwill throughout. Rod Lott