THE FOURTH PORTRAIT review
It starts off strongly enough, with little Hsiang (Bi Xiao Hai) in the hospital left to watch his dying father, a wonderfully bleak opening reinforcing on multiple levels how utterly alone the boy is. There's no-one else to care for Hsiang, so he tries to make a go of carrying on as if nothing's changed, but when the school janitor (veteran King Shih Chieh) catches him stealing food the old man insists on reuniting him with his estranged mother (Hao Lei, Love You 10,000 Years, Empire of Silver) and her new husband (Leon Dai, Reign of Assassins, Buttonman). They're none too thrilled by this; his mother works at a local brothel and his stepfather nurses a deep grievance over his wife's first family. Left to his own devices, Hsiang drifts idly through life, trying to make sense of the adults who cross his path.
'Idly' being the key word here, unfortunately. Parking was driven by a definite purpose, despite all the craziness thrown in to obscure it: Chang Chen's reluctant protagonist just wanted to get his car back so he could get home to his wife. Portrait has a direction, but a fairly nebulous one. Once it's been established Hsiang's got over the loss of his father, Chung fails to give the story any real heart. Explicitly or implicitly the boy doesn't change, doesn't grow, barely even reacts - sure, his new parents are lamentably lacking in many respects, but even when his stepfather outright threatens and assaults him Hsiang looks mildly upset for a few minutes then carries on as if nothing's happened.
You can figure out what the script seems to be trying for, more or less, but it never feels as if it's being communicated as fluidly as it ought to be. Take Hsiang's friendship with a local petty crook (Na Dow, who also appeared in Parking) - one assumes the boy considers himself that cut off from his peers he's happy to go along with anyone who's decent to him, even a bumbling thug. But though their relationship has some pleasingly earthy comic moments, is it really enough to justify Hsiang helping him burgle empty houses, even hold up a classroom full of children for the money for their school trip? Bi Xiao Hai does reasonably well for a young actor, but his blank stare doesn't hold the answer, even if it's just to say he doesn't have a clue.
And the framing device never makes the impact it should. The first portrait is promising, touching and pathetic all at once, but the others drift into tiresome cliché (think about it for a while and you can probably guess the last one). Again, while the supporting cast manage to get the script to spark into life occasionally - seeing Hsiang verbally sparring with his teacher (Terri Kwan, Prince of Tears) is a standout moment - none of them are fleshed out enough to warrant the idea the boy would consider any of them as defining who he is. And yes, a child's actions or priorities can often seem bizarre from an adult perspective, but Chung doesn't give any indication this was part of the plan. Too much of Portrait feels like watching a small boy do stupid things for no particular reason.
There are times you can see the man who made Parking at work. The Fourth Portrait is a truly gorgeous film, seen through a faint, grimy blue filter bathed in golden light, with DP Nagao Nakashima turning in some beautiful, poster-worthy shots in a subtle, almost off-hand way. Some scenes, much of the first act in particular, match that combination of arthouse whimsy and wry, bitter black humour that made Parking such a joy. And there's little if anything you could single out as bad; Chung's talent and identity as a Taiwanese director are still very much in evidence, from his technical skill, to his choice of cast and crew and even his comic asides. It's just that Portrait lacks the impetus to bring all of this together.
Coming of age stories are nothing new, in Asia as much as anywhere else, and The Fourth Portrait doesn't come close to troubling the heavyweights in the genre. Even relative fluff like Life is Wonderful has more energy and flair, to say nothing of big event movies like Patrick Tam's After This, Our Exile or a masterpiece like Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day. Portrait might still be worth watching for completists, and it suggests Chung Mong-Hong might still have something markedly better in him, but it's so profoundly unfulfilling after his first film - let alone sat next to the competition - it can't really be recommended.
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