Fitfully amusing reboot of the 'Happy Ghost' series that is an unwieldy blend of the old-school humour of the series and modern-day fantasy elements à la 'Harry Potter'
You have to hand it to Raymond Wong, the multi-hyphenate actor, writer, producer and director of the 'Happy Ghost' series- besides another fellow Wong (we're talking about Wong Jing), he's probably the longest-serving filmmaker in Hong Kong with a career spanning over 30 years. He's had his ups and downs, but we're talking about the person who's been behind such classics like 'Aces Go Places' and 'All's Well Ends Well'- so you may forgive him for trying to replicate his past successes especially in recent years.
'Magic to Win' represents yet another attempt- after his 'All's Well Ends Well' CNY offerings over the past three years- to recapture the box-office glory of arguably one of his biggest hits, 'Happy Ghost'. Spawning four sequels after the 1984 original became box-office gold, the 'Happy Ghost' series breathed its last breath (pun intended) in 1991, and Raymond has here enlisted his son Edmond Wong (whom he has groomed as a screenwriter since 'Dragon Tiger Gate' and 'Ip Man') to give it a new lease of life.
Edmond's attempt at revitalising the 'Happy Ghost' brand has been to turn it into a mishmash of 'Harry Potter' and 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', and those (we would presume most) who have seen either Hollywood film will easily recognise the references to both. By way of 'Harry Potter', there is good magic and bad magic- the former consisting of the Water Magician Prof Kang (Raymond Wong), the Earth Magician Ling Feng (Wu Chun), the Wood Magician Gu Xinque (Louis Koo) and the Metal Magician Charlie (Japanese real-life magician Tonny making his first big screen appearance); and the latter made up of the Fire Magician Brad (Wu Jing).
Before you go thinking that this is going to turn out as some epic struggle between good and evil, let us reassure you that it is not. Rather, things are kept simple- too simple in our opinion- so what turmoil in the wizarding world is no more than so that the Fire Magician can capture all of the other magicians and use their powers to change the past. You can guess how it turns out in the end, especially with a bit of moralising thrown in, and let's just say that though the magicians here are all grown-ups, the story is ironically more juvenile than any of the 'Harry Potter' movies.
That's only one half of the movie in fact. The other is a rip-off of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', admittedly not a very good film to begin with. To get there, Prof Kang will first transfer his powers to a precocious university student of his, Macy (Karena Ng)- who just like the teenage apprentice in the Disney movie, decides to use her newfound magic to her own advantage until she discovers that the consequences of doing so. Prof Kang then becomes her teacher, the sorcerer played by a goofy bespectacled Raymond Wong instead of the scraggly-looking Nicolas Cage.
Not much time however is spent on the tutelage of master and student, as most of the first half of the film is spent on Macy's discovery of her supernatural powers. The excuse for the overindulgence in these earlier scenes seems to be for the sake of nostalgia, with certain scenes paying homage to their iconic predecessors from the 'Happy Ghost' movies- though that also comes with the price of good pacing. Indeed, too much time is spent watching Macy and her underdog volleyball team on the courts, and the narrative lacks the momentum needed to make it anywhere near interesting. Sadly, the pace hardly picks up after the halfway mark- even the climactic fight between the good and bad magicians turns out surprisingly anti-climactic.
Effects are never a replacement for story and character, but when both are lacking, you've got to be thankful that the filmmakers at least got something right. It's nothing outstanding when you compare it to big-budget Hollywood titles, but considering how atrocious CG effects can turn out (think Wong Jing's Future X-Cops) in a China/ Hong Kong title, what has been accomplished here is surprisingly polished. That alone marks a breakthrough for director Wilson Yip, the director of 'Ip Man' and this year's 'A Chinese Ghost Story' whose maiden attempt at directing a CG-heavy blockbuster proves unexpectedly adept.
Yip is however let down by shoddy scriptwriting that not even the all-star cast can salvage. Raymond Wong is still delightfully amusing as ever, but there isn't enough time in the movie for him in between Karena Ng and Wu Chun. The latter nonetheless delivers his most assuredly charming performance to date, while the former has enough charm and fresh appeal as a newcomer to hold your attention. And if you must know, Louis Koo and Wu Jing unfortunately are wasted in barely-there supporting roles.
Alas the same can be said of this reboot of the 'Happy Ghost' series, a misfire of an attempt to blend the light-hearted humour of the former films with the contemporarily trendy elements of magic and fantasy. Neither comes to a satisfying brew, let alone the mixture of both, and while 'Happy Ghost' provided more than enough magic to sustain Raymond Wong's filmmaking career, there is hardly any here to make it a winning formula. The good news? Raymond Wong will survive this movie to make another, his next yet another reboot- that of the classic comedy 'Eighth Happiness'.
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