Magic to Win, money to lose. Producer Raymond Wong updates his Happy Ghost formula with this tepid comedy that should serve as a cautionary tale against remaking paper-thin pap from earlier decades. Not that there’s much to remake; Happy Ghost lumped together cute young girls with supernatural elements and random hijinks and called the resulting concoction a “movie.” If that’s an axiom then Magic to Win is a movie too. It’s also not a good one, as producer-screenwriter Edmond Wong (Raymond’s son) and director Wilson Yip (still in movie jail) proceed to make the wrong movie with the elements they’re given. Really, updating Happy Ghost should be easy, but if you make a few wrong choices then predictably IT ALL GOES TO HELL. Such is the case here.
Magic to Win stars Raymond Wong discovery Karena Ng as Macy Cheng, a spacey college girl at Pegasus University who plays on the school volleyball team along with her five best buds. They totally stink, so one wonders how they ended up on the school team, but their fortunes on the court change after Macy develops magical powers. How she got the powers: one day she crashes her bike into “Water Magician” Professor Kang (Raymond Wong) while he’s using his powers to deflect rain. The next day Kang wakes up without powers and Macy wakes up with them, leading to dominance on the volleyball court and extra income via the “Victory Club,” a service Macy and her pals run where they use her powers to help others – for a price, of course. Meanwhile, Fire Magician Biye Wu (Wu Jing) is looking for other elemental magicians, with apparent nefarious intent.
According to the screenplay, magic involves one of five elements (wood, fire, wind, water, metal) and if a single magician can combine them all, he’ll be able to travel back in time and do bad things. Maybe. Biye Wu begins by taking out drunken Wood Magician Gu Xinyue (Louis Koo in a glorified cameo), and moves on to super-hot Earth Magician Ling Feng (Wu Chun), who for some reason is hanging around Pegasus University. After dispatching Ling, Wu intends to go after Prof. Kang, but then he disappears for scads of screentime as Macy gains her powers and engages in all the Victory Club shenanigans. Where exactly does Wu go? This is a massive plot hole, but moving on: Ling Feng’s soul wanders around, invisible to everyone around him – except Macy, who can still see him, leading to shtick that recalls the original Happy Ghost. Eventually, there’s a big magician meet up to stop Biye Wu, plus some minor justification on why cheating at volleyball is OK. Magic to Win: it’s not meant to be educational.
Let’s cover the good first: Magic to Win was shot and released by a consortium of film studios, meaning that it receives some legitimacy as a “major motion picture.” Furthermore, its filmmakers have been nominated for numerous Hong Kong Film Awards and its actors are popular, skilled or cute – though not always a combination of the three. Also, the film possesses visual effects by Korean companies, and references Star Wars with a pointless lightsaber duel between Wu Chun and Wu Jing. Karena Ng does not shame herself in her debut performance, meaning if we see her in another film, there won’t be immediate hives. And nobody died while making the film. Now for the bad: everything else. Really, this movie is the pits, and alternates between boring, uninteresting, predictable and unfunny. Given the premise, one wonders why they couldn’t have made an enjoyably fluffy comedy, but for some reason Edmond Wong and Wilson Yip miss the mark by a couple of thousand miles.
The Happy Ghost movies were trifles, as was the 2002 update Nine Girls and a Ghost, but at least those films knew what they were. Magic to Win errs by foisting upon the audience a thin comedic concept and then employing straight-faced direction that’s more leaden than lively. When you make fluff, you should direct it like fluff – or, if you insist on doing more, you can add some knowing wit or humor. Wilson Yip began his career with horror-comedies, so he can handle something fun and throwaway, and Magic to Win does attempt such with silly situation comedy and cheesy montages. But mostly Yip plays it straight, from deadly magic duels to attempted poignancy, and the result is all-out boredom. The film is way too long and way too reverent in the application of its visual effects – sorry, watching actors stand around and shoot CGI lightning at each other over and over is not inherently exciting. 100 minutes – count ‘em, because that’s what Magic to Win takes from your life. Time for a Happy Ghost retrospective instead. (Kozo, 2011)