While scrolling through social media, you will invariably pass by advertisements for videogames — not real videogames — but carbon copy advertisements that are made to look something like a real videogame. It might look like Grand Theft Auto but all of the details are wrong. When you open the app store, it is another brick-busting game like Arkanoid. It is never what the ad shows it to be. A Writer’s Odyssey is the cinematic equivalent of this phenomenon.
At first blush, it looks like a movie. It’s not. It almost certainly plays on your screen and takes a good chunk of time to watch. But like so many of the aforementioned advertisements, it is all bluster, and when you unwrap the package, there is no movie there.
A Writer’s Odyssey has done gangbusters over in China, where the market is finally returning to the theater after the long pandemic break. It placed third in the important Lunar New Year box office sweeps out there. Short any Hollywood blockbusters, or even a pale imitation of one, A Writer’s Odyssey would have to do.
I am at least familiar with the template of the story. I hope it is the template. There is no way to really know. The supposed inspired mythos of the Journey to the West story is familiar and cozy, and seems to be a dominant subject in Chinese film. Here, it spins out into an incomprehensible web of a story. It’s about parallel realities converging. There’s a desperate father who must find his missing daughter and a fantasy novelist that he must kill, who seems to be manifesting this reality through his online fictions. At any point, it can feel like four different narratives are going in different directions. Fine enough, but it never plays as remotely coherent, or intelligible, without any rhythm to plot movements, or from one edit to the next. It’s a digital effects festival in search of a movie.
And the effects are not that good. Part of it is that the movie refuses to decide upon a tone. It will go neither into high fantasy nor magical realism. It would prefer to blandly cross those worlds. The CGI, then, always feels disconnected, without a sense of place, or a physical weight that feels attributable to the world. Large dragons or demonic creatures can grace the screen without feeling or impact. It’s an expensive way to make a film that does not have any tangible visual goals, which is a disaster for a project where only the CGI stands out.
It remains unclear to me exactly why A Writer’s Odyssey exists. It seems to only be an absurd monetary proposition. Like those videogame advertisements on social media, it hopes someone will see this on a poster outside a cinema, and think that they are going to see a real movie.