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Writer's Odyssey, A
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by Jay Seaver

"A lot of movie(s)."
3 stars

I doubt know if it works this way in China or if the "Brotherhood of Blades" movies were big enough to merit it, but "A Writer's Odyssey" feels like when someone scores a surprisingly big hit and gets to make their dream project without a lot of people saying no. It is two or three different ambitious movies merged into one by means of a high concept that needs just as much attention on its own, and is as a result predictably all over the place. It is, at least, the sort that can't help but be intermittently entertaining because filmmaker Lu Yang is swinging so big and so much is going on.

It starts with Guang Ning (Lei Jiayin), a broken man living off the grid haunted by both dreams of a fantastical city and the kidnapping of his daughter Tangerine six years ago, and how he strikes back by forcing a semi full of trafficked kids off the road with uncannily well-aimed rocks, only to have the police think he is one of the criminals. He's busted out of custody by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), Chief Information Officer of the Aladdin Group, who has a strange offer: They believe that they have located Tangerine by applying facial recognition to the pictures taken by their smartphones, and will reunite them if Gaung kills author Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian) before he livestreams the conclusion of his novel in three days time. Why? Well, Aladdin founder Li Mu (Yu Hewei) has been incapacitated every time Kongwen has mentioned his villain Lord Redmane's old head injury flaring up, and if Kongwen kills him at the story's climax...

That is, of course, not all - Guang Ning has been chosen in part because his unlikely disabling of that truck is no fluke; he can throw stones with impossible power and accuracy, seemingly changing their direction in mid-air, and he's not the only person with superpowers Li has found. Li Mu himself seems to be a Steve Jobs type building up a cult of personality, and Chinese viewers will find it almost impossible to miss that "Aladdin" is awfully similar to "Alibaba", one of China's largest companies with its fingers in everything from internet services to banking to entertainment (including this movie!), though I'm not sure how specifically Li Mu maps to that company's founder Jack Ma. On top of that, a fair amount of time is spent in the world of Kongwen's novel, which has its own lore detailed enough to not just be a generic stand-in. That's something like four different genre movies, from sword & sorcery to superheros, all mashed into one, and for all that the film does an admirably smooth job of moving from one to another, it seldom gets very far down into any of them. There's a whole paranoid thriller to be made on how sinister an organization with the reach of Aladdin is but it's taken for granted when not useful, for instance; the philosophical ramifications of whether Kongwen is tapping into a parallel world with linked doppelgangers or creating it aren't much pondered, even when a battle in the fantasy world has hundreds of casualties, or even how this world's Kongwen has the power to captivate and maybe influence millions despite both Li Mu and Redmane being able to exert more direct control. There's this terrific metaphor at its center but by having Kongwen as a character, the viewer can actually see the writers screwing around with plot devices like they matter more than the bigger themes.

But when Lu throws everything he's got at the movie - and that's a lot; I couldn't really read the end credits but the logos imply that it was filmed with Imax cameras and optimized for Imax 3D - it can be a visual feast, full of exciting high concepts. The audience only dips in and out of the fantasy world occasionally, but Dong Zijian's questing hero version of Kongwen is enjoyable as a protagonist with a hint of whatever the Chinese for Mary Sue/Marty Stu is, and one gets the impression of the sort of enjoyably detailed world-building that could believably suck fans in. That Kongwen's got sentient, parasitic armor that leapt to him from a defeated opponent, the sidekick he acquired is pursued by spiffily designed warriors, and an almost throwaway image of flying dragons that are actually linked pods that function like hot-air balloons feels like the sort of thing that most movies would save as the centerpiece of a finale.

The "real world" pieces are, frustratingly, not quite so compelling, with that Kongwen such a generic dork that viewers will spend a long time wondering why a superpowered assassin is apparently necessary - and, truth be told, the movie would be about a half-hour long if Guang Ning didn't also feel the need to figure this out. For all that the film is built around Lu Kongwen and Li Mu being on a collision course, they both tend to be at the sidelines of what the audience sees. It's not a bad decision, since Lei Jiayin is a solid base for the movie as Guang Ning, and aside from him handling most everything the filmmakers throw at him, it's a neat trick to see a familiar story told from the point of view of the conflicted adversary with hidden depths. With him playing protagonist, Yang Mi gets that adversarial role, impressive during the action (along with a solid stunt team) and icily charismatic enough that it's a shame she doesn't have an opposite number in the novel, just to see another side of her.

It is, in fact, just good enough to make me wonder if some of the sloppiness is deliberate, especially when the action in the other world reaches its climax. Its characters are inspired writers, but not necessarily presented as talented ones, so when a giant boss battle is going on in the other world while the walls are closing in in reality, the final set piece seems impossibly improvised despite being piled high with meticulously executed CGI. It's a strange spot midway between camp and attempted cool, swinging toward both haphazardly, crowd-pleasing enough but also bizarrely chaotic and amateurish at points. On the other hand, the whole thing is whatever was bouncing around the filmmakers' heads, bolted together haphazardly, and that's often fun and frustrating in equal measures.

The rest of the movie is like that, if not to the same spectacular degree. It's full of ideas that don't entirely fit together, with none of them getting all the time they need to breathe, and enthusiastically being that sort of movie doesn't make being decent at a lot of things add up to being great. "A Writer's Odyssey" is, instead, a strange mosaic built out of some nifty pieces.

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originally posted: 03/01/21 03:00:55
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  12-Feb-2021 (MA)

Directed by
  Yang Lu

Written by
  Shu Chen
  Yang Yu
  Haiyan Qin
  Yang Lu

  Jiayin Lei
  Mi Yang
  Zijian Dong
  Hewei Yu

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