No-one at high school suspects mild-mannered Professor Hong Sam-Kwai (Raymond Wong) is actually a powerful elemental wizard. Hong keeps a low-profile, teaching advanced astrophysics with the aid of Superman cartoons (!) but failing to inspire troublesome slacker girl Macy Cheng (Karena Ng). Macy and her five friends make up the school volleyball team whose losing streak has left good-hearted Coach Lau (Yan Ni) in danger of losing her job. Whilst cycling home one night, Macy accidentally collides with Prof. Hong and somehow absorbs his magical powers. Her newfound abilities spur her team to victory. Dubbing themselves the Victory Team, Macy and her friends create a website advertising their services to help other unfortunates find success in the sporting arena. For a small fee, of course. Soon the girls are rich, but trouble arises when Macy discovers she is the one person able to see Ling Fung (Wu Chun), a handsome young wizard turned invisible by the dastardly Bi Yewu (Jacky Wu Jing). Bi Yewu is on a mission to absorb the powers of the Five Elemental Magicians so he can travel back in time for his own mysterious ends. Luckily Hong Sam-Kwai is on hand to help Macy save the day.
Current king of the Hong Kong box-office Wilson Yip Wai-Shun was behind not one but two big-budget reboots in 2011. Following his remake of A Chinese Ghost Story, the filmmaker mounted this hip revival of the Happy Ghost franchise which had writer-producer-star Raymond Wong returning to the role of slapstick supernatural hero Hong Sam-Kwai after a twenty year gap. Mounted on a lavish scale with eye-catching and accomplished special effects, Magic to Win invokes instant nostalgia with a dance remix of the original theme music and cameos from past series stalwarts Loletta Lee and Lau Siu-Ming, but injects refreshing pep into the old formula. As with almost all the Happy Ghost movies, sport plays a major role in the plot. Here a new generation of nubile and sporty Happy Ghost Girls headed by appealing newcomer Karena Ng score big money with various athletic endeavours. Their success is depicted via a lively montage of cut-out animation, which ranks among several imaginative flourishes Yip Wai-Shun uses to ensure the action resembles an engaging live action cartoon.
In updating the concept Yip Wai-Shun and Raymond Wong undoubtedly draw upon mainstream trends. The special effects and detailed wizardry exhibit the influence of Harry Potter and the X-Men films, both hugely popular in Hong Kong, while the film includes a cheeky nod to George Lucas when Ling Fung and Bi Yewu duel with lightsabers drawn from the pages of a Star Wars reference book. Equally, Magic to Win’s core message is a variation on Spider-Man’s famous dictum: with great power, comes great responsibility. Macy learns to be a less selfish, more responsible person. Underlining this is a subplot dispute wherein the school’s piano-playing principle argues winning and the financial benefits reaped from success are all that matters, while Coach Lau and Prof. Hong cling to their belief that sport and education should build character. Refreshingly, the moralizing is not at all heavy-handed. Macy learns her lesson but remains a sassy, outspoken character.
While Karena Ng shines throughout both the wacky comedy and extravagent fantasy battles, emoting in an uncannily convincing manner akin to Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), it is a shame Macy does not play an active role in the climax. Having shouldered the bulk of the plot, she is reduced to a bystander while special guest stars Louis Koo and real-life stage magician Tonny Jan join Prof. Hong for the effects laden finale. Jan’s character appears almost an afterthought while Koo’s cameo adds little besides marquee value but Raymond Wong’s slips into his old role with affable ease: a little less klutzy, more straightforwardly heroic than in his Eighties/Nineties heyday. Among the most successful aspects of Magic to Win, a third act twist springs a poetic time travel twist that alters our entire perception of Jacky Wu Jing’s villain and brings on a welcome humane touch emphasising Hong attempts to empathise with enemies rather than simply blast them into oblivion. A triumphant return for a childhood favourite.