How do you resurrect a franchise that’s been dormant for the past 20 years? With some Hollywood magic that’s how, veteran Hong Kong producer Raymond Wong revealed at a press conference to promote the release of ‘Magic to Win’, a reimagining of the popular ‘Happy Ghost’ series which spawned five films including the original from 1984 to 1991. As was typical for most filmmakers, Raymond was both star, writer, producer and director of many of the previous films- but this time he left the reins to writer Edmond Wong and director Wilson Yip.

“We couldn’t have been doing the same thing again for today’s audience, and if I were too involved, then this movie would probably be too similar to the past ones,” he said. “So I left pretty much the entire creative process to Edmond and Wilson.” Of course, the fact that both were also responsible for two of the biggest box-office hits of his producing career- ‘Ip Man’ and its sequel- was a huge reason for his confidence. And in response, ‘Magic to Win’ became a movie not about ghosts, but one packed with fantasy elements that required some extensive CG work to realise.

“It’s a gamble all right,” said Wilson, who was also in town with Raymond to meet the local press. “But if we didn’t try, we wouldn’t know how good we were at it.” He compares his CG-heavy blockbuster to an experiment, one which he hopes will herald a breakthrough in Hong Kong cinema and allow the industry to regain the kind of box-office clout it used to enjoy in its heydays. The process however took noticeably more pre-production work.

“A lot more preparation was needed for this movie prior to shooting,” he explained when asked to compare the filming of ‘Magic to Win’ to that of ‘Ip Man 2’. “You have to, and you have to ask your actors to, rely a lot on imagination, because most of the time you are filming against a green screen and you can’t physically feel or see what is coming at you or what is around you.”

In order to prepare his actors for the process, lead actor Wu Chun said that Wilson provided many references for them, so that they could understand what kind of powers they would have in the movie. The former Fahrenheit singer plays Ling Feng, one of the five Elements magicians who gets literally an out-of-body experience which leaves him invisible except to his peers and powerless against his enemies.

“Filming against a green screen means that you have to pretend a lot- like even though you can’t see what is in front of you, you still have to duck on cue as if it’s there.” The actor added that he was grateful for the new experience. “Ever since I decided to dedicate myself to furthering my acting career, I’ve been looking for new movies and new roles to try out, so I think working on ‘Magic to Win’ was something refreshing and enlightening for me.”

This is also Wu Chun’s first movie with Raymond and Wilson, and the pair praised him for his professionalism on set. “You need a good-looking teenage idol if you’re going to make a movie that will appeal to teenagers,” said Wilson. “And Wu Chun had the looks and the acting to match up to the task”. Raymond added, “He was also a very jovial presence to have on set, and he would always bring food to share with the rest of the cast and crew. In fact, when he left to film another movie, everyone else missed him dearly.”

Besides Wu Chun, the movie also starred another fresh face, newcomer Karena Ng from Hong Kong. This was in keeping with the spirit of the earlier ‘Happy Ghost’ movies, which producer Raymond Wong said he would deliberately use as a platform to promote young talented ingénues. (As an aside to fans of Wu Chun, you need not worry- while Karena praised Wu Chun for being of ‘boyfriend’ material, she said that she treats him no more than an older brother.)

In a case of reel imitating real, Raymond stars in the movie as the Water Magician Prof Kang whose powers get transferred to Karena’s university student accidentally and eventually becomes a mentor of sorts to her. Of course, Raymond’s participation in front of the camera was also in line with the previous ‘Happy Ghost’ films, where he was the titular character. This time however, instead of putting on a Manchu hat, he found himself having to endure about a hour and a half of makeup daily for his character’s unique getup.

“I had a Japanese lady doing the makeup for me, and she was very particular,” he said. “In the old days, we would simply slap on a ready-made moustache, but she actually went to the trouble of making sure the individual strains of hair were in place.” Raymond also had to dye his hair golden for the role, a transformation he was stuck with for a few weeks during production and which greatly amused his industry peers. “They were joking about how I was still trying to look cool and hip at my age!”

But Raymond said he was happy to have put in the effort for the movie, especially given the hard work everyone else was giving to the production. This movie also marks the fifth collaboration in five years with Wilson and Edmond, and Raymond describes their creative partnership as ‘pure chemistry’. And though this is the first time he’s casting Wu Chun in one of his movies, he has already been impressed enough to go ahead with yet another- with Wu Chun taking up another leading role in his next production, the Ronny Yu-directed ‘Saving General Yang’.

Not just with some Hollywood magic, but with some good-old physical talent therefore, Raymond Wong has brought to life his 20-year-old ‘Happy Ghost’ franchise. It seems he’s found the winning formula to make it happen both with the ‘Ip Man’ production crew and with new blood like Wu Chun, and it’s a formula he thinks has the potential to sustain another four or five films like ‘Happy Ghost’ in its heydays.

“We’re already talking about sequels,” he smiled.

MAGIC TO WIN opens on 8 December 2011 and is reviewed here

By Gabriel Chong, with kind assistance from Rebecca Ler