‘A Writer’s Odyssey’ Review: A Chinese New Year Tentpole Attraction Blends Fantasy and Reality With Mixed Results
Art and Experience:
Parallel worlds commingle with initially intriguing but progressively less invigorating results in “A Writer’s Odyssey,” a handsomely produced action-fantasy directed by Chinese hitmaker Lu Yang (“Brotherhood of Blades,” “The Sacrifice”). Centered on a desperate father whose search for his missing daughter draws him into a plot to assassinate the author of an online fantasy novel, “Odyssey” is packed with stunning sights including a 50-ft., four-armed CGI villain but is let down by a script that fails to fashion promising story elements into a consistently compelling whole. One of seven major films releasing locally on Feb. 12 for the lucrative Chinese New Year season, this hotly anticipated item opens on the same day in 109 U.S. theaters.
Based on a short story by Shuang Xuetao, “Odyssey” gets off to a strong start with action on radically different fronts. In the real world, middle-aged man Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) thinks he’s finally found the low-life human traffickers who kidnapped his daughter, Tangerine (Wang Shengdi). But after six years of soul-destroying searching it looks like another dead-end and he winds up under police arrest.
In snappily paced scenes, Guan escapes from custody and is driven to safety by stranger Tu Ling (Yang Mi, “Reset”). A power-dressed corporate type working for charismatic tech magnate Li Mu (Yu Hewei), Tu tells Guan it’s no accident they met and “you’re our valued business partner.”
Meanwhile, in a strikingly designed medieval-like fantasy world, young warrior Kongwen (Dong Zijiang) is on a mission to eliminate Lord Redmane, a monstrous, godlike tyrant with thousands of crimson-armored assassins on horseback and hordes of fanatically faithful foot soldiers at his disposal. Guiding Kongwen is Black Armor (Guo Jingfei), a vanquished old soldier whose body disintegrates and reforms as a talking eyeball in the middle of armor that attaches itself to Kongwen’s body.
Connecting real and imagined landscapes is Lu Kongwen (also Dong Zijian), a nerdy young author who reads installments of his work-in-progress novel “Godslayer” on the internet. The film’s nifty central conceit is that Lu Kongwen’s story about his namesake warrior has magically infiltrated Guan’s dreams and is directly affecting Li Mu’s physical and mental health. The tycoon says he suffers severe pain whenever Redmane’s power is challenged, and he’s convinced he will die if Lu Kongwen kills his villain in the final chapter.
The upshot of all this is an offer Guan can’t refuse. Claiming her company knows the whereabouts of Tangerine, Tu promises to reunite Guan with his daughter provided he kills Lu Kongwen before he finishes his novel.
Director Lu and his co-writers weld these fanciful elements into an initially engrossing tale that permits easy suspension of disbelief and carries the promise of exciting revelations about how and why the fantasy world is affecting real people and events. This applies particularly to the “Godslayer” character of Shuan Zi (also played by Wang Shengdi), a young orphan whom Kongwen takes under his wing, and whose fate seems connected to the mystery surrounding Tangerine.
“A Writer’s Odyssey” comes up short on detail and explanation, even though its broad story arc is easy enough to follow and there’s no end of superbly executed chase sequences and spectacular sights, including cities in flames and a flock of brilliantly designed flying dragon lanterns attacking Redmane’s enemies.
The most glaring piece of missing information is how Guan acquired the ability to throw objects with superhuman strength and guide them by thought. His gift is established in the very first scene and comes into play when he hurls golf balls at two of Li Mu’s henchmen (Liu Tianzuo, Li Binghui) who also happen to possess their own special powers. It seems that Li Mu’s company has a sinister connection with these supernatural capabilities but this tantalizing thread is left unexplored.
The screenplay takes stabs at providing motivation for various characters with tales of family tragedies and childhood abandonment, but none are substantial enough to bring much emotional weight to the story or make sense of how Lu Kongwen’s fiction is able to affect reality. From around the halfway point when Guan gets to know Lu Kongwen and begins to understand more about his troubling dreams a hollowness creeps in, with each new plot development promising insight and discovery but delivering little more than visual stimulation.
With two and a half years spent in post-production and 800 special effects technicians contributing to the finished product, “Odyssey” certainly looks the goods. The film’s outstanding technical qualities include glorious photography by Lu’s regular cameraman Han Qiming, top-notch production design by Li Mao and a rousing score by ace Aussie composer Jed Kurzel (“Snowtown,” “Macbeth”).