Fri, Oct 22, 2010 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: A little boy lost

After winning the Best Feature Film award at this year’s Taipei Film Festival, ‘The Fourth Portrait’ is ready for the upcoming Golden Horse Awards, with nominations in seven categories

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Child actor Bi Xiao-hai won the Best Leading Actor award at this year’s Taipei Film Festival for his role in The Fourth Portrait.

PHOTO COURTESY OF ATOM CINEMA

After his critically acclaimed feature debut Parking (停車, 2008), a darkly comic urban drama, director Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏) moves to the countryside in the exquisitely crafted The Fourth Portrait (第四張畫). The atmospheric film takes a poignant look at the issue of domestic violence through the tale of a boy haunted by loss, and is enhanced by handsome cinematography and a top-notch cast that includes Taiwanese thespians Leon Dai (戴立忍) and King Shih-chieh (金士傑), as well as Hao Lei (郝蕾) from China.

Set in rural Taiwan, the film opens with 10-year-old Xiang, effortlessly played by newcomer Bi Xiao-hai (畢曉海), watching his father pass away in a hospital room. Left alone in the world, the boy manages to survive by stealing boxed meals. An elderly school janitor (played by King) takes Xiang under his wing.

Later Xiang’s estranged mother (played by Hao), remarried to a morose night market vendor (played by Dai), comes to take the boy to his new family. A sense of foreboding envelopes the movie when the train that the mother and son take speeds into a black tunnel, leaving the two devoured by darkness.

Xiang’s new home is cold and unwelcoming; the stepfather is rancorous and distant. His mother, a Chinese immigrant, seems exhausted by her life as a hostess at a ramshackle karaoke bar. The boy struggles to make sense of his hostile environment by sketching portraits, and finds solace in a newly found friendship with a portly outcast, played by entertainer Lin Yu-chih (林郁智), better known as Na Dou (納豆). The friend makes Xiang an accomplice to his petty crimes.

The story takes a menacing turn when Xiang draws a portrait inspired by a dream about his older brother, who disappeared some years earlier. A series of macabre incidents ensues, gradually laying bare a skeleton in the family closet.

FILM NOTES

The Fourth Portrait

第四張畫

DIRECTED BY:

Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏)

STARRING:

Bi Xiao-hai (畢曉海) as Xiang, Leon Dai (戴立忍) as Xiang’s stepfather , Hao Lei (郝蕾) as Xiang’s mother, King Shih-chieh (金士傑) as school janitor

RUNNING TIME:

104 minutes

LANGUAGE:

Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles

TAIWAN RELEASE:

today


Cowritten, shot and directed by Chung, the film shares a similar episodic approach to storytelling with Parking. The child protagonist’s series of encounters with odd characters offers gripping moments, but prevents the viewer from emotionally investing in the narrative. The distancing effect that works well in Parking to convey urban estrangement is often frustrating when one tries to grasp the emotional poignancy and depth suggested in The Fourth Portrait.

Nonetheless, Chung is a wizard at evoking moods. The director never shuns away from his background in TV commercials, weaving rich colors, polished compositions and fluid camera work into a cinematography that gives Taiwan’s countryside a dreamlike, surreal quality.

The bleak, hostile environment is inhabited not only by petty criminals and drifters but ominous dark clouds rolling in from a distance and toxic yellow fumes belching out of factories in the background. Most striking of all is the stepfather’s giant fish tank, which exudes an eerie blue light that doesn’t seem to be of this world.

The solid cast lends considerable strength and grace to the work. Hao, almost unrecognizable from her lauded big-screen debut in Lou Ye’s (婁燁) Summer Palace (頤和園, 2006), presents a powerful character study of a Chinese immigrant who comes to Taiwan in search of a better life but ends up disillusioned. Dai is stunningly fierce as the stepfather. Rather than a character grounded in real life, however, Dai’s role feels more like an embodiment of wickedness that seems out of synch with the other rural inhabitants.

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