A messy review for an even messier movie.
The world premiere of Ka-Fai Wai's film was the opening of the New York Asian Film Festival in 2009. It was a big to do with the director in attendance and was the cause for much hoopla. When I saw the film in its second run in the festival a week later I was left confused and wondering what the big deal was. (Looking at my notes I see I noted people sleeping through it and laughing at in appropriate times.)
Certainly the film is typical of the writer/director (and frequent Johnnie To collaborator) in that it is decidedly atypical. While his films frequently mess with your head and challenge your expectations almost always they pay off. One need only look at The Mad Detective or tomorrow’s film Running on Karma to know that he’s really good at doing the impossible.
Written By on the other hand is the sort of film where he couldn’t quite get it right. Ka-Fai Wai said that he went through multiple cuts of the film and this was the only way the film worked. I would hate to see what it looked like when it didn’t work.
Okay, you’re probably wondering why am I mentioning this film if it doesn’t work. I’m mentioning it because I’ve kind of softened toward the film. I’ve seen it on DVD since I saw it at the film festival and while I will be the first to say it is often a mess, I do think that there are some real treats in the film.
The story concerns a family that is in a terrible car accident. The father is killed, the daughter is blinded and everyone is left to struggle on. Many years later with the family still struggling with the death of the patriarch, the daughter decides to write a story about the father who is now blind, struggling to deal with the death of his family in a terrible car accident who starts a story where his family lived and he died and they start a story where… You get the idea.
If you’re confused reading that imagine how it’s watching the film, where it gets even more confusing as characters from various permutations begin crossing realities. It’s a mess that goes off the rails almost instantly since you're never clear where or when you are. (It's only kind of clear at the very end)
The fact that the film is unclear is where a large part of my dislike for the film comes from. I don't like that we have to spend so much time trying to unknot what we are seeing. It's a big problem that the nature of reality is out the window to start with, since the film becomes a fight to know what is what. More than once you wonder if what you just saw was real or not.
When I saw the film a second time I was in a better place since I kind of thought, 'to hell with it, it makes no sense, just go with it'. I did and while I still am not a huge fan I could enjoy the film more.
Certainly the film isn’t perfect, some of the "blind" acting is funny for the wrong reasons, and some of the plot twists, including more tragedy, that feels like they were only added to keep things going. Unfortunately no matter how you look at it you will probably laugh for the wrong reasons at some point.
But at the same time the film has some real joys. The best stuff is all of the sequences with the Queen of the Underworld. The sequences of the trolley taking away the spirits are the reason I didn't walk out the first time and they are good enough on their own to recommend the film. There are also some great moments when the walls between realities begin to crumble and the dead and the living are reunited.
I’m not going to lie, this isn’t perfect (actually its not even close) but it is worth seeing. Keep your expectations in check and I think you’ll find some small treats in this film. If nothing else you’ll find the way you’ll want to pass into the next life.
Available as an import and from Amazon e-sellers.
(This has been revised seven times in the first six hours since posting-watch this spot for further revisions.)
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