Better known as Johnnie To's creative partner and co-founder of To's independent Hong Kong company Milkyway Image, Wai Ka-fai is also one of the most distinctive screenwriters in contemporary cinema. His collaborations with Johnnie To are tinged with the supernatural and the metaphysical, making for scripts packed with cyclical, mirroring movements perfect for To's imagistic direction. Written By, directed solely by Wai, operates with one of his densest screenplays, co-written with Au Kin-yee. Its recursive movement of characters shaping and reshaping each other's fates through fantasy leads to Kaufmanesque blurring of dimensional boundaries, but where Kaufman's work plays on intellectual lines, Wai's endless loops serve to bring his story's immense grief closer and closer to the surface where the characters, and audience, can truly confront it.
Wai embeds the Milkyway approach to streamlined narrative movements and gestures in the opening. A young blind woman, Melody (Mia Yam), teeters on the edge of a roof as she recalls the horrific car accident that caused her disability years ago, and at first we "see" that memory almost as if looking through her destroyed eyes in the present. The crash mostly happens over a black-screen, with a younger Melody asking her father, Tony (Lau Ching-wan) if he believes in ghosts. The screech and shriek of rent metal intrude before Tony can respond, and his death ensures he never will. As Melody and her brother, Oscar, grow, their mother, Mandy (Kelly Lin), continues to mourn her husband, until the daughter concocts an idea to help them all cope. Together, they will write a book that posits Tony lived in the crash while they all perished; in this world, though, they can come back as ghosts to be with him again.
This reflexive inversion echoes within the concocted narrative, as the living Tony of the novel, blinded like the real daughter writing him, gets out his own grief by writing his own story that rewrites his family’s roles. Wai’s mise-en-scène frequently shifts through the aid of CGI and some abrupt but smooth cuts that make the ever-changing roles of the characters within each dimension and between them flow as a whole. What is on-screen shifts with the parameters of the novel, so that the ghost Oscar can only appear to his father as a dog when Melody’s story holds sway over the frame, while he can revert to a human form when Tony’s story takes over.
As a director, Wai lacks To’s finesse, but the constant repositioning of foreground and background elements that makes To’s compositions so dynamic is sublimated into the writing via such aforementioned reversals and revisions. Even more so than the twisty scripts Wai typically writes for To, Written By never allows anything to settle for long before some new wrinkle shakes up the narrative, be it yet more tragedy in the real world rippling through the layers of the story channeling such events or in the agency of the characters in breaking through some of those layers. Even so, minor visual touches—like a slight zoom into Tony’s ear perking to attention in Melody’s story when his ghost wife turns corporeal and calls his name, his body language registering (then dismissing) the impossible—displays a nuanced elegance that hints Wai might well have earned all those co-director credits To gave him.
Eventually, the lines blur to the point that not only the audience is left to wonder who is alive and dead and in which stage of the Matryoshka story but Death finds herself at a loss as well. The narrative mayhem, however, serves less to bring out the density of the recursion than the inner turmoil of pain wreaking havoc on characters “real” and fictional. Along those lines, Written By offers its actors, who routinely get ignored even by international audiences receptive to Milkyway’s wares, a chance to truly shine. Lau in particular gives a performance equal or superior to his best and most manic work with To; normally channeling his exuberant energy toward comedy, here he plays his novelized father with an agony that can be hard to bear. Fate always plays a role in Wai’s work, but the brazenly artificial manner in which painful random acts in reality are transferred into even crueler forms through fiction becomes viscerally raw. Even marveling over Wai’s delicate balancing act comes a distant second to the universality of grief, signified here by how quickly it disseminates not just among people but between planes of existence.