A Writer’s Odyssey (formerly known as Assassin in Red) is the latest film from Chinese filmmaker Lu Yang. He is best known for the Brotherhood of Blades films; sterling examples of martial arts pieces that manage to branch out of genre conventions and become something more as they both venture into crime fiction. They were both surprise hits both critically and financially and put Lu on the map.
For his latest film, he has gone on to more ambitious fare with A Writer’s Odyssey as it combines fantasy and reality in a complex plot that melds emotion and fiction in a compelling way. Armed with the highest budget he has ever worked with, a few returning on-screen collaborators in Lei Jiayin and Yang Mi and renowned filmmaker Ning Hao as executive producer, will Lu make his best film yet?
The film is based on a short story by Shuang Xuetao and it gets off to an action-packed start on two major plots. The first plot follows the journey of a middle-aged average joe Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) who is in the middle of tracking down child traffickers who may have kidnapped his daughter Tangerine (Wang Shengdi).
After six years of searching, he has reached another dead end and he is arrested on his latest attempt to track down the people that kidnapped her. He is rescued out of police custody by the mysterious Tu Ling (Yang Mi), who works under tycoon businessman Li Mu (Yu Hewei). Tu hires Guan to pull off an assassination job in exchange for information that could lead to finding his daughter. His task is to kill Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian), a talented young author who is in the middle of writing his latest novel, Godslayer.
The second plot is set in a vast fantasy world and it follows the journey of Lu Kongwen (same name, and also played by Dong Zijian), a young villager turned warrior who is driven by vengeance after witnessing a tragic death of someone close to him. He then ventures on a mission to defeat the people responsible; the villainous Lord Redmane (no relation to actor Eddie “I CREATE LIFE” Redmayne) with the help of the tragically orphaned Shuan Zi (also played by Wang Shengdi) and Black Armour (voiced by Guo Jingfei), a long-surviving soldier who is now embodied as a singular eyeball on suit of armour that Kongwen wears.
How do the two plots link up? What does the fantasy have to do with Guan’s search for this daughter? Does the film provide answers? Does the film hold up to Lu’s previous work? A Writer’s Odyssey is a mixed bag from a filmmaking perspective but as a theme park ride (as Martin Scorsese would describe Marvel movies), it is a lot of fun to watch.
The story-within-a-story approach is nothing new; especially when pertaining to Hong Kong/Chinese films. We have had films like the Pang Brothers’ Re-cycle; which was about an author who becomes immersed in the fantasy world she has written that is inspired by her inner horrors. We also have had Ching Siu-tung’s The Adventures of Dr. Wai; which was about an author who is struggling to finish his serial adventure martial arts novel while undergoing a divorce proceeding. Both films were examples that blended fiction and reality while meshing genres to creative an emotionally and cerebrally stimulating package; and this is where A Writer’s Odyssey fits in.
To delve into the film, let’s start with the negatives. There are many moments in the film that are either unbelievable or just plain unexplained in their inclusion (or lack thereof). For example, Guan has an affinity for throwing objects at a great distance. However, the film exaggerates the action to a degree that is almost comical and super-heroic in its visual aesthetic that is somehow never explained. The exaggerations also apply to the antagonists in the modern side of the plot. The two henchmen that work for Li resort to electricity power packs and inexplicable drug injections that incite bouts of strength. How these types of people work with a man like Li? No clue, but the kind of stereotypical characterizations that are shown speak for a film that veers towards fantasy that begs not to be taken seriously; and this is about the modern plotline.
However, for a film that has meticulously set up dramatic stakes that beg to be emotionally felt i.e. sins of the fathers coming back to haunt the children, the battle between good and evil; the film has a tonal imbalance in what it wants to be. It wants to be a rollicking blockbuster and it wants to be a crime mystery but Lu and his screenwriters Chen Shu, Haiyan Qin, Yu Yang just cannot seem to find a seamless way to mesh the genres together. On an optimistic note, the film does end in a satisfyingly low-key manner that shows Lu having his cake and eating it too; an ending that links the two plots together in a dramatically effective manner that recalls the ending of Little Women by Greta Gerwig.
To be fair, the film could be referencing towards a Wuxia approach where characters just inexplicably have powers with no exposition or reasoning behind them; a genre aesthetic that is well-worn. But seen through the modern times, the fantasy element still comes across as quite jarring.
On the positive side, Lu has assembled a meticulously designed fantasy world that bears a lot of influence in terms of Japanese sources (the Black Armour is similar to a character in the anime Vampire Hunter D) and it also tips a nod to Hollywood films as well (the chase scene involving a Crimson warrior and Kongwen and Zi is reminiscent of a chase scene in Aquaman). But the visual splendour is always a marvel to look at and the IMAX camerawork (complete with perfectly timed aspect ratio changes) make the most out the imaginative ideas on display.
The action scenes are shot with clarity and energy (a particular highlight involves Black Armour battling a horde of robbers) and the film has enough gonzo energy to keep the film entertaining (however exaggerated and illogical it may be) if not emotionally satisfying. Throw in an extremely effective score by Australian composer Jed Kurzel that manages to bridge the fantasy and weight of reality of the story and you have a technically pleasing package.
The cast try their very best to lend life to their one-dimensional characters and they almost truly succeed. Lei convinces in showing the desperation and perseverance in Guan while Dong plays both the author and lead character in the fantasy in a solid fashion. Yang is a surprise as Tu Ling as she shows capable action chops and solid presence in a role that is unlike anything she has ever done while Guo is fun as Black Armour as he adds much needed comic relief to the proceedings.
The lone disappointment here is Yu, who is given very little to do as the main antagonist of the film, which hints of the residue of the flawed screenwriting. It is a shame that their characterizations are underwritten and the exposition behind their motives are handled in a clunky way that involves jarring exposition; especially in the case of Tu Ling.
Overall, A Writer’s Odyssey is an entertaining thrill ride that provides enough wild action, energy, creativity and visual splendour to satisfy audiences. But one does wonder what it would have been like if the script had more emotional weight and storytelling discipline behind it.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
A Writer’s Odyssey is showing in cinemas now, courtesy of CMC Pictures.