Tuesday, 7 December 2010


The Fourth Portrait [Review]

Opinion: A

Never seeming to feature a strong main story, this Taiwanese film almost finds itself tripping over the major rule of cinema. You will realise that the story of attraction actually resides within the well-established characters who are pleasurable to watch for the entire span of the film. All emotions evoked within the audience derive strangely from the wide range of silver screen personalities instead of the plot, a great example of genre defying work of talent.

Ten year-old Xiang (Bi Xiao-hai) faces a lonely future after his father dies. Just when he thinks he's going to spend his life in the orphanage, his estranged mother (Hao Lei - 2010 Golden Horse Best Supporting Actress) shows up. And his life changes forever... A loveless mother, a hateful stepfather (Leon Dai), a chilly home. Where's Xiang heading to? He finds comfort in drawing and his work reveals his longing for care and affection. Life is full of hope again when he meets the old school janitor who doesn't show his kindness easily and a portly man (Na Dou) who has crazy ideas and is haunted with nightmares of his brother. A scary truth is about to be unmasked. Will Xiang be able to depict his own image in the fourth portrait?

There is this unspeakable quality to this film, a film that evokes so much emotions through all the well-written characters and yet it is handled (superbly) by Director Chung Mong-hong (who is recently awarded the Golden Horse Best Director for this film) in such a silent fashion in reminiscence of Ozu. Xiang is a silent protagonist by nature, as we later learn that it is the repression due to poor treatment he receives from most adults in his life. He chatters with a vast amount of pure (but often crude) naivety and curiosity only to adults whom he can open his heart to.

The privileged individuals are none other than the elderly school caretaker he befriends after his father's passing, and the similarly estranged twenty-odd boy "Big Gun" whose sharp tongue provides a great deal of casual hilarity for the audience. The caretaker is probably an ideal fatherly/grandfatherly figure to Xiang while Big Gun is possibly a dear elder brother to him. These two fill up the void in Xiang's pitiful life.

One scavenges through desolated residences for scrap items of value while the other instigates petty theft and a daylight robbery of school children. Although these two perform morally questionable activities to tide them by every single day, the main focus here is the kind intentions and pure hearts of these two that are well-received by Xiang as valuable lessons in life.

On a side note, Big Gun comes from a pitiful family background as well.

We then move on to the darker characters in Xiang's life ahead of him. Xiang's mother, an attractive bar hostess of her age, reappears to be in custody of his well-being after the death of his father, leading him to stay with her and his new step-father who disapproves of his presence.

We are introduced to an imaginary elder brother of Xiang here as he often appears in his dreams ever since moving in with his mother. This person truly exists albeit missing for several years after his mother moved from Mainland China to Taiwan. We soon get to learn about the shortcomings of this new family where the (ex-convict) mother views marriage as a mere convenience in achieving a better life while the step-father sports lurking violent behaviours underneath his obnoxious facade. The lesser of evils will be Xiang's mother who is incapable of caring for him despite having the desire to as she tries hard to make ends meet.

Xiang is a silent character in front of these two who doesn't care much about him.

As mentioned prior, this film essentially has no serious story going on. It is not about the destination but the process. The enticing factor comes from the character interactions that revolve around Xiang, where dialogues are always a pleasant surprise as they are seldom heard elsewhere and unpredictable. Aided by excellent screenwriting the characters are very much alive in the audience's mind, be it the benign or malicious ones.

Often silent and aloft, the camera work is designed in such a way that it allows us to feel as if we are watching the onscreen development as an observing third party, almost like a spirit's perspective. Perhaps the audience is purposely casted as the ghost of Xiang's imaginary elder brother, as it is most noticeable in a specific self-confessional scene where the stepfather reveals certain dark secrets of the past.

Of course, this is just my view based on a wild imagination.

If you are wondering how the film gets its title, you will know that it is better to unravel this mystery by watching it. All I can say is, every portrait depicts an individual (or part thereof) who matters in Xiang's life, one where he pursues and discovers both a lost childhood and coming-of-age maturity through an array of personalities around him.

An outstanding work of genre-experimentation by the talented Chung Mong-Hong, one to watch for.

(Preview screening courtesy of inSing.com)


  1. will certainly have to check this one out then, looks my kind of thing.
    Also to let you know as your a nominee, the blog award buzz starts tomorrow with a news round up each day about the contenders. And if you would like to appear in the headline poster send a picture of yourself to themovie411@live.co.uk

    Another great post J-Son, see you at the awards :)

  2. @Dempsey I just did, can't wait to read on the buzz. It's almost coming to the deadline of the online voting phase, that's fast!

    This film's recently achieved some awards at the Taipei Golden Horse, which was what lured me to it in the first place. I'm glad that I watched it. Can't wait to hear what you think of it when you do. =)


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