The Great Magician

By Michaele Jordan: I watched a wonderful movie last night, and just had to share my delight!  We’ll start, of course, with the credits.

The Great Magician is a 2011 Hong Kong action fantasy comedy film, based on a 2009 novel by Zhang Haifan. It was directed by Derek Yee, who also wrote it, along with Chun Tin-nam and Lau Ho-leung. It stars Tony Leung as Chang Hsien, Sean Lau as Lei Bully (Lei Da-niu) and Zhou Xun as Liu Yin

The film is set in Beijing in the 1920s during the Warlord Era, after the fall of the Qing dynasty.  The political situation is chaotic, to say the least. The city is packed with royalists, Japanese agents, politicians, warlords, military recruiters, refugees, and a wide variety of money-grubbers. Yet life in the city goes on, in something surprisingly like normal, with noncombatants taking care to remain inconspicuous, and schemers trying to look innocent.

Take Lei Bully. He’s a warlord and doing pretty well for himself. Got six gorgeous wives – and one spare. Spare? Liu Yin is his beautiful prisoner. She’s widely referred to as his seventh wife, but she insists they’re not married. Bully believes she’s being faithful to her missing fiancé and is apparently so infatuated with her that he has hesitated to use force. And she has not attempted to escape him.  Because she is afraid for her father who is in prison – she says.

When not agonizing over his love life, Bully stages recruitment drives, in which his butler performs magic tricks to scare convicts into signing up. (Either the local prisons have been emptied in the confusion, or the translators are using the word ‘convict’ as a synonym for riffraff.)

The magic shows attract Chang Hsien. But not as a recruit. Chang is a much better magician than Bully’s butler. Soon he has taken over the local theater to stage his own magic shows.

His magic shows are astounding. (Trust me on this — even if you don’t want to watch the whole movie, try to catch a clip of one of Chang Hsien’s’ magic shows. You will remember it forever!) Of course, he isn’t in it just for the magic, either. He too has a political agenda. And the first time he and Liu Yin meet, we see sparks that have nothing to do with politics. Or magic.

After so much talk of magic and politics and magic, let me to reassure you there’s plenty of action, too. But not like the action you see in an action film, where big guys start throwing punches at every opportunity, with no apparent expectation of resolving anything, just because they’re so manly.

This movie is about clever people, and they don’t invite trouble casually. They always have a reason. Another clever person is Liu Yin’s father who is imprisoned of his own free will – prison being the safest place he can find. He’s discovered a wonderful, dangerous treasure. It’s a manuscript, explaining the techniques for the real magic which has been lurking under the stage magic all along.

I’ll stop here, but not for fear of spoilers. This film is so kaleidoscopic that spoilers are not really possible. You have to see the whole mandala. And it’s on Netflix.

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