Director: Lu Yang
Notable Cast: Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi, Dong Zijian, Yu Hewei, Guo Jingfei
After a double-fisted punch of modern wuxia excellence with Brotherhood of Blades and its prequel, Lu Yang was a directorial name to watch. All eyes were on his third film as questions arose whether or not his style and balance between classic and modern influences would translate beyond the world he helped craft in the previously mentioned martial arts actioners. When the initial trailer dropped for his latest, A Writer’s Odyssey, a plethora of questions were left in its wake. With a dual narrative where ambitiously over-the-top fantasy action set pieces collided with a classic kidnapping thriller plot, the film looked almost too disjointed - even in the marketing. We all know that trailers are specifically meant to make a film look good and A Writer’s Odyssey, partnered with its odd title, felt a bit too egregious even for the vulgar auteur in me.
Yet, as the film unleashes during an insanely busy Lunar New Year celebration, A Writer’s Odyssey reveals its strangest plot twist in a twisty-turny script. It actually works. The parallel plotting and narrative weaves together in a provocative manner, running a fascinating emotional through line of classic thriller and action elements while never pulling away from delivering on big, fantasy spectacle. Where the film could have easily fallen prey to the same issues that plague other modern films about the power of storytelling in action cinema, for example, the horrific misfire of Sucker Punch, this is where the film finds a surprisingly strong balance.
That’s not to say that A Writer’s Odyssey doesn’t have some messy elements to it. It features occasionally perplexing choices in the script or direction, but it’s a film that seemingly owns those choices with a vigor that helps an audience pop past them. Most of these arise in the relatively hefty plot where a distraught father has spent the last six years searching for his lost daughter, Tangerine. When a tech mogul and his assistant/martial arts badass reach out, they give him a dire option. They believe they have found his daughter but in exchange for that information, they ask him one task - murder a young writer who is publishing his new novel piece by piece online.
This sets up the big hook of the film where the various characters in the conspiracy plot are replicated and represented as fantasy characters in the writer’s story. It’s not a wholly new approach, I grew up on The Neverending Story and love that strange meta approach to digging into the power of storytelling. Yet, there is a clever angle here that combines that kind of concept with some classic Chinese cinematic elements - most notable in the fantasy portions of the film. There are aspects to both sides that feel a tad underdeveloped, including the reveal that there are individuals in the real world with potential ‘superpowers’ and the introduction of plot elements in the fantasy story that don’t quite carry weight i.e. a civil war between lands, but often A Writer’s Odyssey unveils them with such confidence that it’s only after the fact do they feel thin. The rest of the film tends to power through and finds that sweet balance between entertainment and heart.
Lu Yang has a knack for delivering on that balance and does so regularly with efficiency in the massive script and larger cast. Even for the secondary characters, including the author of the novel, there is an emotional core that resonates in the plight of the father. All of their arcs as characters intertwine as more is revealed in the plotting and it’s done in some shocking ways that definitely works to keep an audience invested. While there are plenty of twists in the writing, it’s how the wants and needs of the characters intersect that seemingly presents the freshest material here with impressive layers and depth.
Unlike his previous two films, Lu Yang is fully devoted to the big CGI spectacle here. There is plenty of classic martial arts action on play, but over the top wire work within a combination of classic set design and bold, colorful CGI is the main focus of the action here. Whether it’s a chase sequence with a crimson armor-clad guard, a rock monster with one eye, or a giant blue god-like figure with four arms, the film piles on plenty of action fantasy set-pieces. One of the highlights is a fiery siege from one city to the next complete with gorgeous visuals and flaming dragon hot air balloons and it makes for a visually fun and stunning cinematic experience (one that looks like it was specifically made for IMAX - which was not a format available to me.)
If anything, A Writer’s Odyssey is a massive surprise for the year. Between the ambitious storytelling motif of the script, intriguing character dynamics, raucous action sequences, and a roller coaster style narrative that keeps the audience on a perpetual tilt for the majority of its run time, this film finds a balance that rouses attention. The high-end fantasy elements are exciting, filled with Easter Eggs, and bursting with visual bombastics while the main thriller plot delivers the emotional grounding and foundations to let the two plots ricochet off of each other. It’s a film that requires a lot of belief suspension from its viewers, but if one is willing to dive in - A Writer’s Odyssey is a modern fantasy epic worthy of its epic nature.