In the early 1920’s, the Qing Dynasty has fallen, and the warlords have taken to fighting one another. One warlord however, General Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau), while he seems rather imcompetent, has actually been quite smart about it. First, he’s made a deal with the Japanese to supply him with tanks, which is something the other warlords don’t have. He’s also captured a large number of the rebels, but rather than killing them, he had his lieutenant, Liu Kun-shan, use magic, food and money to convince them to join up with the general’s army.
The general also has seven wives. His first wife was an arranged marriage, and wives two through six all offered themselves to him, but it’s wife number seven, Yin (Xun Zhou), that he wants more than any other. Unfortunately, she was kidnapped by his lieutennant and her father was being held prisoner by the general’s lieutenant. The general was too honorable to force her to marry him, and she constantly resisted, insisting upon the release of her father. The general was unaware he was being held however and had no idea where he was. The lieutenant was holding him prisoner of his own accord in order to extract the secret of the seven wonders from him. A spell that combined seven elements that could throw a whole roomful of people into their most desirous fantasy, and also render them helpless while it was in effect.
One day, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung) comes to town. He was Yin’s former fiance, and a master magician having trained under Yin’s father, but he left when they were supposed to get married and went to America in search of the "cold fire", an incredibly great magic that allowed him to manipulate balls of fire that weren’t hot to the touch. Now he’s back, and he buys into a failing tavern to open his own magic show. Soon, he’s become famous in the town, but he and his crew have yet to reveal their true plan, which is to kidnap the general so he can free Yin and put an end to the general’s percieved evil. Soon however, he learns the truth about the general’s true nature, and who the real enemies of the people are, but can his magic alter the course of events that are unfolding al around them, and will he ever win back Yin’s heart after leaving her to pursue his dreams of becoming a master magician? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
I’m always torn with films like this on how much detail to give in the synopsis, because things change throughout the film and things aren’t always what they seem. Such was the case with this film.
The primary strength of this film, over and above everything else that’s great about it, is the cast, and how they interact with one another. Tonly Leung has the same boyish charm that Jackie Chan has always had. Ching Wan Lau starts out seeming like a somewhat incompetent warlord with some plans to solidify his power, and then proceeds to show a level of charm and a depth of emotion that was unexpected. His wives are quite funny, especially wife number three who likes to believe she’s his favorite. Watching him deal with them, while at the same time trying to win Yin’s love shows us that he’s really a big softy when it comes to love, and when he rolls into town in one of the Japanese tanks, and then buys all the children candy and then takes them to Chang’s magic show, it also shows that he’s a big softy when it comes to children. Things are consistently revealead about his character and his personality throughout the film that end up making him a very likeable character.
Tony Leung as the master magician Chang Hsien, does a wonderful job of looking like someone who’s utterly skilled when it comes to magic and performance, and is a likeable character right from the start. The magic shows performed in the film are a visual wonder, and even though they’re mostly done with visual effects, it’s the kind of magic that you’d love to see performed live on stage, even today. His entire troupe worked the stage as though they’d spent their lives doing it, and where some films might fall short when trying to achieve things like magic on stage, this film certainly didn’t. He even performed some magic one on one with people in various scenes, just as a real magician would. Magic is far more difficult to do with a practiced hand than many may realize, but Tony Leung did a beautiful job with it all. Aside from the magic, the relationship he developed with the general was also very entertaining, leading them to ultimately like each other, even though they were rivals for Yin’s affections. The great thing about the relationship between the two is that it wasn’t based on animosity, at least, not after Chang learned the real truth about the general.
Xun Zhou as Yin, while at times had some fun and entertaining interactions with the general as he was trying to win her affections, ultimately came off as too cold and unemotional. She took that aspect of her character a little too far, and while I don’t know if it was simply written like that or if it was something she injected into the character herself, she came off as kind of cold and angry, which made me wonder why anyone would actually bother trying to win her affections. She actually would have given her affections to the general if he could have returned her father to her, but since it was his lieutenant that was a mole for the Japanese, and was holding her father without the general’s knowledge, he had no idea where her father was. I feel like her character could have been a little more likeable than she played it. After all, this film is rather light hearted and comedic, and her attitude often threw a wet blanket over that.
There’s a lot of side intrigue in this film as well, with the Japanese gang plotting to get rid of the general, the general’s lieutenant being a mole, a few guys in Chang’s crew having their own plans to get rid of the general, with Chang constantly having to try to hold them back, the Qing loyalists plotting a return of the empire, etc…. The nice thing about all of these intrigues, is that they co-exist with the main plot without interfering with it. That’s a hard line to walk but this film was well written and did a good job of keeping the side intrigues from interfering with the main triangle between Chang, Yin and General Lei.
Visually, this film, as with pretty much all of the period pieces coming out of China’s film industry now, was just stunning. I could get all cheesy and say that it was a feast for the eyes, as well as the imagination, but I’ll refrain from brining that level of cheese to this review. Suffice it to say, this film gives you a full experience, with great characters, gorgeous visuals, amazing magic and a wonderful, lots of laughs and a wonderful light hearted story that will have you wanting to watch it again and again. Unfortunately, as a reviewer, especially with Asian films, I have to pause frequently to take notes on the names and such, and often I won’t go back to a film again after the review is done. At least, not for some time. As with the awesomely entertaining Tai Chi Zero, I will be watching this film again right away, simply for the enjoyment of it. It really is just that entertaining, and I absolutely loved it.
For special features, this new blu-ray release from Well Go USA included a featurette called "Making the Magic" as well as the film’s trailers.
I can’t recommend this film enough. I really can’t. Do yourself a favor and add this one to your collection. You won’t be sorry.
If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the DVD or blu-ray releases from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.