February brought the annual celebration of the lunar new year—welcome to the Year of the (Metal) Ox—and with it two new action-packed films from China and South Korea, respectively.
Directed by Lu Yang, A Writer’s Odyssey—currently playing in select theaters—centers on a man searching for his lost daughter, hired to assassinate a novelist whose fantasy work-in-progress has begun to shape events in the real world. Over on Netflix, Space Sweepers is being touted as the first Korean bona fide blockbuster, focusing on the adventures of the plucky crew aboard a space junk salvage vessel who must save the Earth from total destruction. Together they make for an entertaining fantasy/sci-fi double feature.
(Some spoilers below for both films, but no major reveals.)
A Writer’s Odyssey
Based on a short story by Shuang Xuetao entitled To Kill a Novelist, A Writer’s Odyssey has a decidedly ambitious, very meta premise, shifting between two parallel worlds: the real world and a fictional fantasy world. Lu Yang is best known for directing the 2014 Chinese wuxia film, Brotherhood of Blades, and its 2017 sequel (a third installment is reportedly in the works). Elements of the wuxia genre are woven into the fantasy portions of his latest film. But the other half is set in the present day. Per the official premise:
A Writer’s Odyssey tells the story of Kongwen Lu (Dong Zijian), the author of a fantasy novel series following a heroic teenager, also named Kongwen, on a quest to confront Lord Redmane, under the guidance of a Black Armor (voiced by Guo Jingfei). But through a strange twist of fate, the fantasy world of the novel begins to impact life in the real world, leading Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) to accept a mission from Tu Ling (Yang Mi) to kill the author.
The film opens with a fantasy sequence in which the fictional Kongwen faces off against one of Redmane’s warriors. He defeats the warrior, but not before his sister is killed. The defeated warrior’s parasitic Black Armor attaches itself to Kongwen, as Kongwen sets off to find Redmane and exact revenge. Cut to the present day, as Ning awakens from his vivid dream of Kongwen’s battle and confronts two child traffickers in a truck—the ones he believes are responsible for kidnapping his young daughter, Tangerine, six years ago. Ning has a special ability: he can hurl objects with great force and control their trajectories. He succeeds in stopping the truck with this skill, but the traffickers escape, and Ning is arrested in their stead.
Thanks to the intervention of Tu Ling, who represents the founder of Aladdin Group corporation, Li Mu, Ning is released—on the condition that he kill Kongwen the fantasy writer, whose latest novel, Godslayer, seems to be adversely affecting Li Mu’s health. The CEO is convinced that if Kongwen finishes the novel, he will die. In exchange for killing Kongwen, the corporation will help Ning find his daughter. But Ning is not a killer at heart, he’s a grieving father, and he inadvertently makes Kongwen’s acquaintance—even inspiring the author through his writer’s block. Real events increasingly begin to mirror the plot twists in Kongwen’s novel, building toward the film’s climactic dual confrontations, which include a battle against a 50-foot, four-armed CGI demigod.
The fantasy storyline in particular features some eye-popping visuals and special effects, and several spectacular action sequences. Lu told Variety last year that his aim was to maintain some sense of reality, even in those action sequences that clearly defy the laws of physics. “It’s probably one of the most technically challenging films in Chinese cinema to date” on that score, Lu said, adding that he found inspiration in comic books and gaming, avoiding as much as possible the most common tropes of Hong Kong action movies or American blockbusters. (Inception is probably the most similar Hollywood film in terms of ambition and themes.)
One might quibble with the lack of depth to some of the characters, many of whom get the barest of back stories, but it doesn’t really detract much from the overall entertainment value of the film. The talented main cast give terrific performances, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the dual quests of Ning and Kongwen, as the explanation for this mysterious linkage between the two worlds gradually becomes clear. Let’s just say that the film is ultimately about dealing with tragic loss and the lingering grief that springs from it.
With its sweeping epic scale, high-octane action, gorgeous cinematography, and high production values, A Writer’s Odyssey is very much in the big-budget vein of 2019’s The Wandering Earth, based on the novella of the same name by Liu Cixin, which grossed $700 million globally. Even if Lu Yang’s film falls short of a similar box office haul, it’s yet another indication that Chinese filmmakers can give Hollywood a run for its money on the blockbuster front.
Director Jo Sung-Hee was inspired to write the script for Space Sweepers a decade ago after hearing about the problem of space junk from a friend. “It started with the idea of space travelers collecting space junk,” he told Korea Times. “I heard about how these fast-moving fragments of space debris are growing and leading to in-space collisions. I realized that this subject has already been dealt with in animations and games, but never in a film. I started writing the script wondering how Koreans, who possess a tenacious mentality, would approach this problem.” Netflix acquired the film after its release was repeatedly postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Per the official premise:
Set in 2092, spaceship Victory is one of the many that live off salvaging space debris. Crewed with a genius space pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), a mysterious ex-space pirate Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), an spaceship engineer Tiger Park (Jin Sun-kyu), and a reprogrammed military robot Bubs (Yoo Hai-jin), Spaceship Victory surpasses all other space sweepers. After successfully snatching a crashed space shuttle in the latest debris chase, Victory’s crew find a 7-year-old girl inside. They realize that she’s the humanlike robot wanted by UTS Space Guards, and decide to demand ransom in exchange.
The world of Space Sweepers is a bleak one in which Earth has become well-nigh uninhabitable. The UTS Corporation, headed by CEO James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), has established an orbiting paradise above Earth, thanks to a breakthrough in growing genetically modified trees and plants, but only a select few are chosen to live there. Most residents eke out a living through salvage, either on the polluted Earth or by collecting space junk in near-Earth orbit—the titular space sweepers. The crew of the Victory are the edgiest, most daring of them all. It’s a rough existence. Any profits inevitably get eaten up by the various regulations and taxes—and god forbid your ship should accidentally hit a satellite antenna, because you’ll be financially liable for its replacement.
That’s what happens to the Victory crew, right before they discover the little girl, Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), aka Kot-nim, in a car floating in near-Earth orbit. UTS authorities are hunting for Dorothy, warning everyone she is a humanoid android created by a terrorist group known as Black Fox, with a hydrogen bomb inside her. There is also a mysterious black-market buyer, Kang Hae-yo (Kim Mu-yeol), who is willing to pay handsomely for Dorothy—enough for the Victory crew to finally get out of poverty.
Each member of the Victory crew has their tragic back story and personal demons, and they each bond with Kot-nim in their own way as the ransom deadline approaches. Is Kot-nim the danger she has been made out to be, or is she something else entirely? And just what is James Sullivan really up to with his scheme to terraform Mars as a new permanent home planet?
Space Sweepers takes its time establishing its world—perhaps a little too much time, since the pacing lags in places, especially early on. But soon the film finds its footing: the entire middle section is a sheer delight, with lots of action punctuated by flashes of humor and quieter interludes. The third act goes on a bit too long, and there’s a bit of a deus ex machina narrative twist at the end, but these are minor quibbles. I especially appreciated the many different languages spoken in the film, reflecting the global melting pot of Earth’s survivors.
Space Sweepers might be overlong, and it isn’t particularly novel in its concept. It’s more of a pastiche of the space opera genre, clearly influenced by such classics as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and more recently, The Expanse, Elysium, and Alita: Battle Angel, with dashes of Alien and Blade Runner for good measure. But it’s still a lot of fun and well worth streaming.
A Writer’s Odyssey is currently playing in select theaters, while Space Sweepers is streaming on Netflix.
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