A WRITER’S ODYSSEY (2021) review

The third most successful film of Chinese New Year 2021, albeit a wide margin behind the first two, Lu Yang’s A Writer’s Odyssey (also known as Assassins in Red) follows Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) a shell of a man desperately looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped six years before. One day, he’s approached by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), the mysterious right-hand woman of tech magnate Li Mu (Yu Hewei). Tu knows everything about Guan: not only his life’s tragedy, but also his almost paranormal abilities – to throw very precisely at impossible angles, to not feel pain… She tells him she has found the trace of his now teenage daughter, and can help him be reunited with her, if and only if he assassinates Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian), the author of Godslayer, a fantasy novel being serialized on the net, and whose plot turns seem to have a direct effect on Li Mu’s health. In parallel, we follow the adventures of Kongwen (also Dong Zijian), Godslayer’s lead character, as he journeys through the war-torn kingdom of Ranliang to avenge his sister (a too briefly-seen Tong Liya) by killing the land’s evil despot Lord Redmane, protected by an army of red-armored assassins.

In its first two thirds, A Writer’s Odyssey is an intriguing and thrilling cocktail of dark fantasy and existential dread. It flings fascinating high concepts to the screen with assurance, evoking both the mindfuck of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and the narrative mise en abyme’s of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. It confidently sets up its own rules, not with chunks of exposition (there is exposition, but it tends to create more questions than answers) but by alternating between real life and the fantasy realm in ways that keep the spectator actively guessing. It relies on superbly gnarly and evocative art direction by Li Miao, is shot through with delectably macabre humour, and benefits from strong performances by Lei Jiayin, Dong Zijian and Yang Mi (who after Brotherhood of Blades II seems to do her best big screen work when employed by Lu Yang). Too bad then, that many of the film’s most fascinating ideas and intriguing plot strands seem to peter out in the last third. While the fact that a sequel is on the way no doubt accounts for the many narrative loose ends (Guan’s paranormal abilities for example, are mentioned and used in the plot, but never explained or even questioned in a world that is supposed to be ours), there’s more generally a feeling that the interplay between the real world and the fantasy world has to be taken at face value, with no real exploration of its mind-boggling implications. Again, the announced sequel may bring answers and resolution, but as it is, A Writer’s Odyssey feels like two third of a great film, hurriedly brought to a simplistic conclusion.

Long Story Short: In the atmospheric and visually stunning A Writer’s Odyssey, fascinating concepts and intriguing plot strands get shortchanged by a rushed and simplistic conclusion. The already-announced sequel may yet bring depth and closure. ***

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