Joi sun ho Review
'Written By' was released in 2009 and was directed by Ka-Fai Wai ('Fulltime Killer'). Wai also penned the script, as well as producing the final product (which is the case for the majority of his movies). Primarily known for his collaborations with one of the most well known of Hong Kong's directors, Johnnie To, this movie is a Wai solo project. The cast comprises a couple of core, experienced actors (namely Lau and Lin), as well as some new to the craft. It's worth noting that all of the primary characters have worked with Wai (or To) on projects previous to this one. Ching Wan Lau ('Black Mask'), an accomplished and experienced actor, plays Tony (the father); Kelly Lin ('Full Time Killer') plays Mandy (the mother); Mia Yam plays Melody (the blind daughter), with Ying-kit Chung playing Oscar (the son). Wai often explores themes of the afterlife/destiny, so I was interested to see how he would fare with this movie, because its core concepts question life after death and explores the emotions of those left behind.
The movie centres around a young family who are all involved in a horrific car crash. The father, Tony, is killed and the young daughter, Melody, is blinded in the tragic collision. So with Tony gone, it's up to Melody and her brother (Oscar) to pick up the pieces and carry on with life. While on the surface things seem to be going to plan, Melody's mother is in fact deeply unhappy. She spends all day reminiscing over her dead husband, finding it difficult to even play his favourite song on the piano; such is the depth of her grief. Although, as the years pass, she immerses herself in college and other activities, the memory of her lost love still burns strong. Melody, a kind and loving soul, seeks to mend her mother's broken heart. Realising that her mother will only be happy if she can once again interact with her husband, Melody begins a novel, with her father as the main character. The novel's narrative is depicted on screen, which includes the miraculous resurrection of Tony.
As the story of Melody's novel unfolds, things begin to get complicated. In this alternative world, it is Melody and her mother and brother who died in the car accident, leaving Tony, who lost his sight in the accident, as the only survivor. This “other world” Tony begins to write his own novel to keep his dead family alive. There are also ghosts involved in this world, just to confuse matters even further, who dwell in Meng-Tor's (Satan, basically) underworld. As the movie progresses, the “real life” Melody is drawn deeper and deeper into the delusion of her storybook world. As she commits her alternative universe to paper (and suffers further tragedy), the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred and for the remainder, we see Melody desperately try to reunite her family via the pages of her novel, while struggling to maintain a grip on her sanity.
I have to admit that I always pride myself in being able to follow even the most complex of Asian movies but this one pushed the boundaries. Melody is writing a story about her dead father. Her dead father, in Melody's novel, is in fact the blind one and is also writing a novel about his family (who are actually alive and writing a novel about him), wherein they exist as ghosts. Approximately 30 minutes into the feature I began to feel decidedly lost. It all became clear after about 20 more minutes and some intense concentration but I did fear, at one point, that I would have to re-watch a large proportion of the movie to actually fully understand the complex plot. And that's long before people start dying, which really starts to confuse mattes. Obviously, to avoid spoliers, I can't go into the detail of who dies but when they do, they inevitably come back to life, through Melody's novel, causing a grey-matter meltdown. So as you can imagine there's lots of hopping back and forward through dimensions as the living and dead cross (unseen) paths and come into contact with one another. I have to say that for a movie with such a short runtime, there is most certainly a lot of activity and plot transitions squeezed in; but I suppose it's an easy task to achieve when you have multiple dimensions at your disposal. In saying that, some of the subplots did seem somewhat contrived and unnecessary.
Aside from the mindboggling narrative (which is actually quite poetic at times and suits the subject matter), the rest of the movie contains a few entertaining scenes. There's a fabulous slow-mo car accident and some of the scenes from Meng-Tor's underworld are very impressive indeed. The more brutal imagery which features can be both striking and shocking at times and seems completely out of place when compared to the almost cartoonish and childlike imagery of the “underworld”. I suppose that this is Wai's way of highlighting the harsh and unforgiving “real world”. I was, at times, reminded of the earlier 'Harry Potter' movies, as the CGI effects are somewhat poorly executed and obviously created with a limited budget (well at least I hope they were). But it's these almost childlike special effects which draw the viewer into a false sense of security, enhancing the shocking nature of some of the other scenes, a trick which Wai skilfully uses often. The acting is for the most part acceptable with Lau and Yam doing a fine job in the lead roles. However, Chung is somewhat hammy and rather simple in his portrayal of Oscar, but I suppose this young actor is completely inexperienced. One character who really irritated me was the maid, who spoke half the time in English, with bumbling, clichéd “Pilipino/Hispanic” type characterisations. I suppose that I just hate the Asians trying to emulate Western Cinema as much as I hate Western directors pilfering Asia for movie ideas. Aside from these instances of hammy acting, the cast are for the most part strong and do a fine job throughout.
Overall, I would have to say that I enjoyed this movie. Although I firmly believe the plot is slightly more complex than it needs to be, I have to commend Wai for attempting to make a movie that is completely different from most offerings out there. He includes some nice directorial touches, such as favouring imagery in place of dialogue to hammer home some key points of the story. There are some innovative camera angles (such as reflective shots and shots emerging from foliage) thrown in for good measure, ensuring that the presentation always feels active. He also introduces some interesting, but highly complex, concepts on the afterlife and the fate which the powers that be have in store for us. There are also undertones of man's desire to control his destiny and to cheat death. Ultimately though, the manner in which these ideas are delivered is somewhat muddled and confusing. It's as though Wai just hasn't quite decided what he wants this movie to be. The entire piece has a facade of childless carefree and abandon, with a deep undertone of sorrow and grief. Although at times I was tricked into thinking that I was watching a PG13 Halloween movie, this one is most definitely not for the under fifteen's. There are some moments of humour but the tragedy of the piece certainly outweighs any laughs which may occur. The movie is what I would describe as a fantasy for adults; a type of watered down 'Pan's Labyrinth' if you will. It's most certainly enjoyable but I'm not too sure if I will return for a repeat viewing, as I felt as though the message which the movie was trying to get across could have been delivered in a manner which did not require such a convoluted story or such cheesy special effects. The pacing is satisfying and things move along at a fairly nippy pace, which goes a long way to avoiding potential periods of boredom. Ultimately this is a story of loss and the mechanisms which individuals use to cope with it. While this presentation is most certainly not perfect, it is most definitely very innovative (as Wai's movies tend to be), tells a good story and is well presented. As such it comes recommended.