The film begins accompanying the spirit of the sprite-like Jaeun (Lee Seung-bi) approaching a bar where her former bandmates, Myeong-su (Jang Hyeon-seong) and her former boyfriend Jae-seong (Jeong Woong-in), have gotten together, three years after her death. The two former members of the titular 'Magicians' reminisce on their past together as well as with their respective significant others, to be joined later in the night by another guest or two.
Not unlike Flower Island, Magicians eschews standard narrative storytelling for a more emotionally experiential passage, although you do see some excellent development from the characters, especially as a monk (Kim Hak-seon) joins the band members in Jae-seong's bar, taking refuge from the winter night. Despite its one-take nature, the film also includes a number of flashbacks, which are handled in a theater-like manner, having the actor transition on front of the camera before walking into the next scene, granting the audience an interesting look as the characters transform from one time period into another. The film already rovides a layer of abstraction but this convention doesn't take the viewer out of the film, instad adding intimacy to the actors' performances. There is also some clever usage of staging, lighting and soundtrack to add more contextual cues to these flashback moments. The light fantasy element of the film, sparked off by the ghost's presence, lends a sense abstraction to the film, further selling Song's one-take approach.
While it's not clear just how much of the film is scripted, the actors never miss a beat, perfectly capturing the bandmates as they remember Ja-eun as well as their time together as 'Magicians', carrying the loss of their friend in their faces and bodies. The film reaches its emotional climax well with the a prime moment leading into a beautiful finale that might not wrap things up in terms of story, but gives the film's overall emotional arc an affecting close.
Director Song is well known for choosing to work in digital video over film and the visual quality does suffer a little because of the limited resolution of digital video at the time, with digital noise and compression artifacts showing up in the image while the handheld camerawork is a little too unsteady at the film begins with a magical tracking shot,. However, the film is well photographed given the limitations of the technology and the aesthetic is never distracting, working well with the film's theater-like abstractions. Song's willingness to let the ghost of Ja-eun break the fourth wall at times, in a playful manner befitting her character, also adds an interesting dimension as the audience is invited to partake in the moment with the characters.
I think Magicians works as well as it does in part because of how Song's own unconventional storytelling style, with his inclusion of a touch of fantasy, is enhanced by the unorthodox choice to shoot the film in a single take. Thus the rational choice is to use a handheld camera and follow characters across scenes. Revealing the transition adds a degree of intimacy rather than a Brechtian reflexivity, and somehow draws the audience deeper into the moment. The magic of Magicians is in the way that it brings its flashbacks to life, transforming a small cabin in the woods into a scene from the big city and making us believe that Jae-seong, wearing the same clothes but a different hat is somehow now in the past even as we watched him continuously walk into the flashback.
Even more convincing than Song's directorial choices is the story as we watch the remnants of the quartet learn to cope with the loss of their dearly departed member and push each other beyond their past together. For taking such a solid story and then imparting it with Song's own uniquely intimate style, Magicians is yet another impressive testament to both the elasticity of cinematic conventions as well as the capacity of cinema to move. Truly, a lovely film.
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