In the early 1920s, a lieutenant named Liu Kun Shan (Wu Gang) uses magic to recruit criminals into his warlord Lei Bully's (Lau Ching-wan) army. Lei Bully is a man who has seven wives, but his seventh wife, Liu Yin (Zhou Xun), is being kept against her will. At the same time, a street performer is offering 50 silver coins to the person who can recreate their magic walnut trick. Chang Hsien (Tony Leung), known as "The Great Magician," does so with ease. Chang remodels a recently closed family hotel and turns it into a house of magic that becomes very successful after just one show. Chang is actually working with a group of mercenaries who want to kidnap Lei Bully, but Chang is also the fiance of Liu Yin who he abandoned three years prior. Chang then discovers that Liu Kun Shan is keeping his master and Liu Yin's father Liu Wan Yao (Paul Chun) behind bars.
Chang Hsien is no ordinary magician. Something has to make him "great" after all, right? He has the ability to control fire and while it is noticeable that the flames are obviously computer generated the film knows how to control it and has a way of knowing when to pull back and not make it seem like overkill. This is pretty unusual for a foreign film since they're notorious for having overblown special effects. Chang's control of fire along with just about every show he puts on is wonderful. Tony Leung fits the shoes of a magician extremely well. His showmanship is unprecedented.
There are also the secrets of the seven wonders scroll to intrigue you even further. When combined properly these wonders are rumored to bring a person's dreams to life. As you can imagine, anything involving the seven wonders is extremely vibrant and cheerful. Making dreams a reality is a glorious thing. The humor in the film is really understated, but also incredibly funny since it usually catches you off guard. The seven wonders scroll sequence where Liu Kun Shan attempts to steal the scroll from Chang Hsien is both humorous and entertaining as is Chang's fight with Lei Bully behind a screen. The film makes light of things like gag reflexes, bulldogs, and heavy breathing while trying to act. There's this emphasis on filmmaking since that art form is still strange to people during this time period and Lei Bully's overreaction to one of his wives possibly doing nudity in a film. "The Great Magician" is just ridiculously enjoyable on all levels.
The story does seem to jump around a bit too often, especially in the second half. Ulterior motives get flip-flopped on more than one occasion and it's a little confusing. The ending is also a huge tease since it only seems to hint at what's to come rather than a conclusion to what you've just witnessed.
"The Great Magician" is an undeniably charming and whimsical Chinese fantasy that captures your imagination with little effort. Having recently viewed "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and how focused that film was on being as absolutely idiotic and self-centered as possible, "The Great Magician" felt like the proper way to use magic in film to its utmost potential in comparison.
Sources: imdb.com, ivsky.com, movieseer.com, thereelbits.com