Home > Film > The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si (2011)

The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si (2011)

In theory, films like this are a success. You take a historical theme matching an anniversary that will provide a context for the marketing to latch on to. You pull together some very good screen-acting talent to reinforce the attractiveness of the product. A team of writers with an excellent track record are commissioned. A reliable director is put in place. It should all work, except some projects end up indifferent in quality despite all the advantages of the individual parts. The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si is yet another example of the phenomenon.


Let’s start off with the history. As films like 1911 and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake remind us, this is the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution. The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si is set in the period immediately after the fall of Yuan Shikai — his attempt to proclaim himself Emperor was not a success — when the national army split into groups loyal to different warlords around the country. This produced a period of some chaos as the warlords jockeyed for position, leaving an opening for Qing Dynasty interests to attempt the restoration of the monarchy, while foreign countries like Germany encouraged the modernisation of China and Japan worked secretly and not so secretly in the “incidents” leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Yin (Xun Zhou) remember what it was like


The plot pulls these threads together in a somewhat haphazard mix. We have Bully Lei (Lau Ching Wan), a dominant warlord who, despite being illiterate, has managed to manoevre his way into a loose leadership role among the other local warlords. He’s secretly taking weapons from the Japanese which will give him an edge should any competitors threaten his interests. But he’s also been infiltrated by Qing spies who are waiting for the opportune moment to stage a monarchist putsch. Into this mess come a team of undercover operatives who want to force Bully Lei to release hostages including Liu Wanyao (Paul Chun). With the help of Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a magician as a frontman, they plan to kidnap Bully Lei and trade his life for the hoped-for release. As a political context, this is already complicated but the scriptwriters Tin Nam Chun and Tung-Shing Yee decided this was not enough to keep us entertained so they added a love triangle. While the magician was away, Bully Lei took Yin (Xun Zhou) as his seventh wife. Surprisingly since warlords were not known for their patience, he has never forced himself on her but has unsuccessfully tried to woo her. The return of the magician puts us in the same territory as that explored by The Illusionist. As you will now understand, the first problem lies in the script as Chang Hsien wants to save Yin from the warlord.

Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau) enjoys of moment of quiet contemplation


The second problem lies in the director, Tung-Shing Yee. Although he has considerable experience as both an actor and director, having directed the outstanding One Nite in Mongkok, he has failed in two key respects. When you are given an overly complicated script, you have to prune it down so that the bare essentials shine out and carry the audience through to a dramatic conclusion. This meanders all over the map and eventually realises it is running out of time to resolve all the plot lines satisfactorily. It therefore crashes and burns in a final thirty minutes of semi-incomprehensible action as characters and plot elements are thrown out and a conclusion of sorts is reached. Worse, what starts off as relatively serious with a wry sense of humour suddenly switches emphasis to become something approaching a farce. Consistency of style and mood is essential if the audience is to be kept comfortable.

Yin (Xun Zhou) still looking for love


This is not to say the film is a complete failure. When you get two actors of the calibre of Lau Ching Wan and Tony Leung Chiu Wai you get watchable cinema. Indeed, although I can’t honestly say the evolution of their relationship makes much sense, it’s fun to watch the warlord and magician discuss the world in general and love in particular. The real problem lies in the character of the warlord. He’s supposed to be violent and aggressive. In a way, this is to compensate for his lack of intellectual skills. Even though people might not respect him, they can at least fear him. Yet he proves to have a romantic heart and, despite not being able to read, a moderately sophisticated understanding of matters philosophical. This is necessary so we can enjoy these conversations, but it’s not credible the vain and shallow man we see at the beginning could prove to be the man at the end. Although she’s not given enough to do, Xun Zhou is also quietly impressive, playing off both male leaders with considerable aplomb. She could never be interested in the warlord we see in the first fifteen minutes, but could prefer the man at the end.


So there you have it. The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si is good in parts but, overall, is something of a mess. I went to see the two leading actors and enjoyed the chemistry between them. They also produced quite a few laughs, particularly in some slapstick moments towards the end. Whether you decide to spend some money on tickets depends on your mood. As a final thought, the magic we see is quite entertaining. There’s a reasonable balance between seeing CGI effects intercut with human beings twitching wires to “make it all happen” on stage. In more social surroundings, the tricks are small-scale and less interesting — sadly, they are the kind of tricks a magician might have produced on demand at parties a hundred or so years ago.


Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Life Without Principle
Mad Detective or San taam
Overheard 2


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