Let’s get the name thing out of the way first: This film has a terrible name. In fact, it started out with the English-language name The Red Assassin but changed to A Writer’s Odyssey just before release into the North American market. The Chinese name is 刺杀小说家 (literally, Assassinate the Novelist, which is actually a better name). Both English names are poor and the new name really doesn’t convey anything at all about this fun and very Chinese epic fantasy adventure. The film builds upon what has become a trope, where the events within a fictional aspect of the story are reflected in the real life experiences of the character. At its most basic, that’s the golem mythos of Hebrew tradition, but it’s also the basis of one of the very best episodes of The Twilight Zone (“A World Of His Own”) and films like The Babadook, where a creepy found children’s book presauges evil happenings in the life of the main characters.
A Writer’s Odyssey starts out with a dark and gripping storyline and only gradually opens into the marvelous fantasy world that proves so astonishing and compelling. Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) had his beloved young daughter Tangerine vanish many years earlier, presumably kidnapped by a villainous group. It’s six years later and he’s abandoned everything in his quest to find her. He’s an unassuming anti-hero with one notable talent: He can throw small objects extremely fast and astonishingly accurately.
He meets the mysterious Tu Ling (Yang Mi), an employee of the enormous Aladdin Corporation, and she offers him a strange and compelling deal: if he kills fantasy novel author Kwongwen Lu (Dong Zijan) the corporation will restore his daughter to him. Guan isn’t a killer, but he’ll do what it takes to find his daughter, so he heads off on his dark quest. We learn that far from being a famous writer living in luxury, Kwongwen isn’t a successful writer by any means. He even shamefacedly admits that his mother helps pay the bills. But the latest book he’s writing has been unknowingly haunting Guan’s dreams for months. In his new fantasy, young hero Kwongwen (yes, the author places himself in his story as the hero) is protected by a sentient Black Armor (voiced by Guo Jingfei) and on a quest to end the tyranny of the evil Lord Redmane.
As Guan gets closer to the likeable Kwongwen in real life, he also begins to realize that they are also both characters in Kwongwen’s latest novel. More importantly, his daughter Tangerine is alive within that fantasy world as an unnamed young warrior too! As events unfold in the fantasy world, so do parallel events occur in the real world. What Guan can’t figure out is why the head of Aladdin Corp. wants to have unsuccessful fantasy author Kwongwen killed? As that motivation slowly become clear, so is Tu Ling forced to question her own role in the situation even as she keeps a close eye on Guan’s progress on his mission to murder Kwongwen.
It’s less confusing than it seems and the film is terrific, with the fantasy sequences truly fantastical in a very mythic Chinese way, and the rest of the story also offering an interesting glimpse of both rural and urban Chinese life. Guan’s eerie ability to throw small objects with astonishing accuracy turns out to be a critical skill when the story takes a twist and suddenly there are villains seeking to stop him at any cost too.
Hollywood fantasy films tend to have a mythic underpinning based in European fairy tales, so even a film like The Neverending Story isn’t incredibly imaginative in its characters and world, and, of course, stories like Lord of the Rings are born from Western warfare and focus more on human morality than the monsters themselves. China has a deeper foundation of mythic storytelling, however, and those tales are generally more imaginative, with dragons, villains and heroes larger than life, and so much more. Chinese cinema delivers up these fantasy films beautifully too, clearly demonstrating that Chinese visual effects studios are more than up for the task of competing with their H’wood counterparts.
A Writer’s Odyssey is begging to be seen on an IMAX screen too. The visuals are fantastic and there are precious few moments when things look even the slightest bit cartoon-y or animated. The fantasy sequences, particularly in the latter portion of the movie, are just wonderful, bright, loud, and bursting with creativity. But the real world experiences of hero Guan, writer Kwongwen and the rest are just as compelling too, an interesting counterpoint to the oversaturated mythic action.
Having said all of that, is it a bit hard to follow this film, all in Mandarin with English subtitles, particularly early in the story. The narrative jumping off point of child traffickers kidnapping Tangerine from her loving parents is harrowing too, particularly in the first 10 minutes or so. Generally, this film overall is younger viewer friendly, but there’s a child trafficking related scene that could stick with more impressionable little ones and could later inhabit their nightmares. Savvy parents might preview the first portion of the film to know if their own children would be okay with the opening scenes or not.
Nonetheless, A Writer’s Odyssey is mostly marred by its unimaginative English name. Otherwise, it’s a splendid example of Chinese action fantasy cinema and great fun to watch. I’m looking forward to a 4K release so I can revisit it again in a few months. Recommended.
Dad At The Movies Note: The fantasy portion of the film is mostly family friendly, though occasionally violent, but the real life storyline of the kidnapped child and father abandoning everything important in his life – including his marriage and career – to relentlessly hunt down his missing daughter could be quite upsetting to younger viewers. I would say tween and older, and be prepared for a possible question or two about the realities of international child trafficking from more aware young viewers.