Given the number of effects-driven fantasy wuxia films that have come out in China in recent years, and the general mediocrity of the ones I’ve seen, I was a little wary of diving into the latest film from Brotherhood of Blades director Lu Yang. But A Writer’s Odyssey is not only a solid action movie, it’s got an ingenious set-up rife with allegorical potential, the kind of sneaky politics one hopes to find as a sign of life in a mass-market product.
Lei Jiayin plays Guan Ning, a distraught father who has been searching for his kidnapped daughter for the past six years. He’s hired by a mysterious billionaire to assassinate a writer (played by Dong Zijian, who played “Dollar” in Mountains May Depart) whose serialized web novel is somehow having an effect on the real world: when the villain in the story gets hurt, so does the billionaire. The story is about a young man who quests to kill Redmane, the villainous godlike figure of a massive city. He’s aided in his mission by a sentient suit of armor that feeds on his blood and can change shape at will and a lost little girl who is searching for her parents. In reality, Guan Ning (who somehow has a superpower that enables him to throw small objects really hard and with unerring accuracy) tracks down and befriends the writer, never quite able to kill him, to the consternation of his handler, a woman with her own traumatic past who works for the billionaire and is played by Yang Mi (from Love in the Buff and the Tiny Times series). As the mystery of the story’s connection to the billionaire unfolds, Guan comes to believe that the girl in the story is in fact his actual daughter.
This idea of a fantasy world intersecting in unusual ways with reality is not a new one. Both Ching Siu-tung’s Jet Li-starring Dr. Wai and “The Scripture with No Words” and Wai Ka-fai’s Written By used the concept in exciting ways to explore the nature of storytelling and the ways it can help us process grief. Lu though uses his realities to reflect like a fun house mirror the state of modern China. The fantasy story seems to be a thinly veiled allusion to the Cultural Revolution: Redmane is literally defended by a horde of Red Guards, and he spends his time pitting one district of his city against the other, instigating wars that leave the whole populace increasingly in his thrall. His counterpart in the real world is a tech billionaire, head of a company whose omnipresent symbol is Aladdin’s lamp, a riff of Chinese conglomerate Alibaba (roughly speaking it’s the Chinese equivalent of Amazon). Both leaders manipulate people to prolong their life — temporal power is equated with godlike immortality. The only thing that’s able to defeat them is art: the written word most especially, but also music in the form of a tune the little girl plays on a flute in the fantasy world, which drives Redmane crazy and frees the mind of her father (who had been brainwashed to serve as one of the Red Guards).
The result is a rejection of both China’s communist past and its capitalist present, both corrupted by individual figures more interested in their own aggrandizement and power than anything else. In this, A Writer’s Odyssey is reminiscent of the work of Tsui Hark, whose punk-anarchist attitude generally leads him to denounce both the West and the Chinese state, preferring instead to nationalistically celebrate China’s unique culture (opera, kung fu, various myths and legends both ancient and modern) in opposition to the West while simultaneously denouncing the various government systems he has worked within over the past 40 years. Lu, like the Tsui of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Green Snake, and Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, packs his fantasy with wild images (there’s a siege that is maybe the most original fantasy action sequence I’ve seen since Baahubali) and offbeat humor, solid action scenes and just enough subversion to get his point across while still passing through the state’s censorship system. After weeks of watching Disney products like Wandavision and The Mandalorian, the ingenuity and commitment to visual pleasure of A Writer’s Odyssey hit me like a slap in the face. I’d almost forgotten how much fun, and how clever, fantasy filmmaking can be.