Rewriting reality proves a tricky business in “Written By,” longtime Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka-fai’s towering monument to denial. High-concept film about coping with the death of a loved one by penning an alternate universe loses itself in a welter of films-within-films-within-films, as each permutation spawns permutations of its own. Thanks to an excellent cast headed by brilliant Wai regular Lau Ching-wan, “Written By” largely sustains its emotional resonance throughout constant tonal gear shifts. Finally, though, the befuddling pic succumbs to a lethal overdose of whimsy and special effects, spelling limited interest beyond fests and Asiaphile ancillary.
Ten years after a spectacular car accident kills her father, teenager Melody (Mia Yam), blinded in the crash, helps her mother (Kelly Lin) and younger brother (Chung Ying-kit) cope with their continued grief by reimagining an alternate aftermath, in which the father is only blinded and the rest of the family dies. But soon the blind father within the fiction is himself writing a book in which he dies and the family survives.
When further deaths occur, “Written By” becomes exponentially more convoluted and the characters inexplicably seep into parallel universes — alive in one dimension, ghosts in another, whisked through time warps or commuting via a spectral streetcar driven by an 8-year-old Melody. At one dramatic point, no fewer than three adolescent Melodys stand on the roof, all contemplating suicide, all differently costumed and existing in fractionally different timeframes.
The film’s scenario makes Charlie Kaufman’s scripts for “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York” seem linear by comparison. The problems arise not from Wai’s structural ambition, which occasionally delights, but from uneven execution.
Within this whirligig of stories, the game plan changes at random. Sometimes events unfold magically, as when all the furniture in the family’s apartment goes floating off to settle in a forest clearing. Other happenings transpire cross-referentially, as the blind daughter and the blind father, in different dimensions, react to the deaths of the others by frantically wrecking their apartments. Yet even deep tragedy generates its opposite: The newly bereaved daughter enters her newly bereaved father’s trashed apartment to tidy up the place, with predictably absurd results.
Unfortunately, Wai’s visual imagination lacks the fertility of his overarching concept. The limbo into which characters are sucked often resembles an overly busy Photoshop ad, and even the more felicitous conceits grow tedious with repetition.