China has been working hard to develop a film industry that equals, if not surpasses Hollywood, even though the West has been largely ignoring them. It's been a bumpy road, with some serious lows along the way, but a potent mix of exponential economic growth and gleeful megalomania made it a lot easier to overcome any setbacks. Yang Lu's A Writer's Odyssey [Ci Sha Xiao Shuo Jia] feels like the next step in this process, a film that equals Hollywood on a technical level, but offers something Hollywood hasn't managed to deliver in ages: the uncertainty of what the next scene, plot twist and/or character will bring. A breath of fresh air in other words.
A Writer's Odyssey feels in many ways like a culmination of a 20-year-long search for identity. The Fifth Generation had brought China international esteem, the genre and commercial legs of their movie industry were virtually nonexistent. During the 00s there was a wild exploration phase, with China trying to figure out what their signature in genre and blockbuster cinema was supposed to look like, the past decade was more about solidifying and refining that identity. And now, a good 20 years later, it appears like they finally arrived where they wanted to be.
What makes A Writer's Odyssey unique, especially for Western audiences, is that you can't rely on cultural baggage to settle into the film. Though the movie is based on a novel (just like, say, The Lord of the Rings), there hasn't been half a century worth of cross-media exposure to familiarize yourself with the material. For a fantasy/adventure film, that's a huge perk, as you're given an opportunity to explore this big fantastical world together with the lead character. Every new setting, adversary and skill represents an uncertainty, that's something I haven't experienced in a blockbuster for a long time.
The plot of the film revolves around Guan Ning, a man whose life crumbles when his young daughter is kidnapped. He made it his goal to find the kidnappers, but when he finally finds their trail, he is apprehended by a special ops team that belongs to a big tech company. The CEO wants to help Ning find his daughter, but in return Ning is tasked to locate a writer and kill him. The writer is live-blogging his latest novel and whenever he broadcasts a new chapter, the story appears to affect reality. The CEO fears that he is linked to the villain in the novel, so the writer has to die before he finishes his story.
In its quest to rival Hollywood, China has struggled tremendously with mastering CG. They've never been shy to commit and in some instances, aesthetic qualities were able to overcome technical imperfections, but generally speaking, it's been a pretty rough journey. I'm glad that A Writer's Odyssey is finally at the level where China is competitive. Coupled with their lush sense of style, it makes for some absolutely stunning set pieces that are rarely seen in blockbusters nowadays. Add some creative fantasy and sci-fi elements, and you have a true stunner.
The soundtrack is where they could've done better. I do believe Lu succeeded in matching the quality of Hollywood scores, but failing to add anything to it, it's simply too low a bar. The music is very overpowering and present, at the same time it fails to add even a sliver of identity. It's just loud and brimming background music that supports the mood of a scene and doesn't aspire to do anything more. I prefer scores that add their piece of DNA to a film and stick long after the credits have faded, then again that's maybe asking just a little too much of a core blockbuster film.
The cast is what you'd expect from a big blockbuster production like A Writer's Odyssey. With actors like Jiayin Lei, Mi Yang and Zijian Dong headlining, Lu secured a cast that knows very well what's expected from them. There's no real international appeal here, none of the actors rise above themselves and neither is anyone going to win a serious award for their effort, but there are no weak performances either and no one gets in the way of the plot or the world building. For a blockbuster, that's probably what's most important, and they nailed it.
There's a popular and persistent complaint that films aren't daring enough nowadays, that directors don't take enough chances and that originality has all but died out. With a cold 6.3/10 average on 1.4K votes on IMDb, A Writer's Odyssey shreds that criticism to pieces. People don't actually want to feel lost, uncertain and challenged watching a film, at best they want fractions of originality within a frame that feels familiar and predictable. It's not a very new or enlightening realization, but it's another reminder that us film fans generally get what we deserve.
The structure of A Writer's Odyssey is pretty nifty, with two different narratives (and two distinct fantastical universes) developing at the same time. It does mean you have to pay a little more attention at the start of the film, but soon enough both narratives start to converge (even when the worlds remain separate) and your brain can safely settle into blockbuster mode. It's a smart way to incorporate both urban fantasy/sci-fi elements and high fantasy elements into a single film. Highlights include a library fight, a destructive chase sequence and a light parade (not unlike the one in Innocence), but the entire film has moments of excellence. That said, the first half is slightly more adventurous compared to the second, which is a bit more preoccupied with tying the narrative together.
There's a tiny amount of cultural kitsch present, but that's a given for blockbusters. Other than that, this film checks all the boxes. It's grand and epic, technically extremely proficient, it delivers fresh and exciting fantasy realms to explore and the pacing is excellent. A landmark for fantasy cinema and a big step up from most Hollywood efforts. Chances are slim that this film will get the respect it deserves anytime soon, but people looking for something new and original in blockbuster fantasy cinema can't really go wrong with this one.