Related to director Wilson Yip’s previous few efforts only in terms of its awkward genre broadness, Magic to Win tries to interpolate more souped-up fantasy clichés than it can manage by slight of cinematic hand. The occidentally alienating plot concerns the convergence of multiple generations of magicians, all of them neatly, if arbitrarily, categorized by element (there’s no significant difference between the powers of the “water” magician and those of the “fire” magician) and along morality lines. When the eldest and most innocuous of these sorcerers, a white-whiskered university professor played with comic aplomb by producer Raymond Wong, confusingly transfers his supernatural faculties to budding female student Macy (Karena Ng), the film climaxes in a veritable mushroom cloud of bubblegum nonsense. Macy’s foundering volleyball team (portrayed by Chinese girl group iMe) becomes unassailable overnight, and we see her manipulating the outcomes of her institution’s athletics in a hyper-designed, nearly lysergic animated montage. Soon after, however, her newfound skills embroil her in an inevitable wizard’s showdown, and the movie’s third act sags with the introduction of new characters (one of them invisible to everyone but her) and a series of magic lessons that clumsily sketch out the story’s mythology.
There’s a winking, spritely nature to this ridiculous content, but it’s rendered impossible to follow by a lack of meaningful relationships that might transcend the film’s multiple threads. The script shuttles its focus away from Macy’s sympathetic perspective too often, and lapses into vague triteness even when we do experience the poor man’s Harry Potter-verse through her befuddled eyes. (The professor explains to her, for example, that magical powers are typically acquired through traumatic episodes that cause one’s brain cells to expand and absorb any mystic energy that might be in their general vicinity.) And though it’s photographed with piercing, sugary brightness that likely mimics the aesthetic of its source material, a series of Chinese fantasy comedies Wong produced in the ‘80s, Magic to Win‘s more defining visual aspect is its almost satirically shoddy CGI; we can literally see the point at which levitating books and apples transform from stationary props to post-production vectors. This cheapness informs a possibly unintentional but nonetheless welcome homage to Roger Corman’s The Raven in its final magicians’ battle-royal set piece, but the demonic-looking carousels and likeable performances deserve less confused parody.