In Hakka, Min Nan and Mandarin
Director: Chung Mong Hong
Cast: Leon Dai, Lei Hao, Shih-Chieh King, Terri
Kwan, Na Dow, Xiao Hai Bi
RunTime: 1 hr 42 mins
Released By: Festive Films & GV
Rating: NC-16 (Coarse Language & Brief
Opening Day: 9 December 2010
Ten year-old Xiang 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 appears. His life changes
A loveless mother, a hateful stepfather, a chilly home. Where’s
Xiang heading for? 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 who has crazy ideas.
But he is haunted with nightmares of his brother. A scary
truth is about to be unmasked. Can Xiang depict his own image
in the fourth portrait?
In his sophomore feature film outing, director Chung Mong-Hong has crafted a quietly affecting drama that couldn’t be more different from his debut- the urban black comedy “Parking”. “The Fourth Portrait” is Chung’s attempt to paint a bleak yet realistic look at one child’s search for his identity amidst a turbulent society fraught with issues of poverty, domestic violence and foreign immigrants.
That child is 10-year-old boy Xiang (newcomer Bi Xiao-hai), who in the film’s brilliant opening scene, watches his ailing father pass away in hospital. From the very beginning, Chung lets his audience know that he is not out for cheap sentimentality- rather than portray Xiang as the pitiful child suddenly bereft of his father, Chung depicts him as quite the sharp fellow, smart enough to place a napkin over his father’s mouth so he doesn’t have to lean in all the time to know when his father has breathed his last breath.
The dad’s funeral reveals the first of four portraits drawn by Xiang, a somewhat cartoonish drawing of his father used as the funeral photo to largely amusing effect. Like the first portrait, the ensuing ones are a reflection of the people whose relationships have made a significant difference in his life- including a portly loutish thief nicknamed “Big Gun” (TV veteran Na Dow) who introduces him to a life of crime and his missing older brother whom he has mysterious dreams of.
Both follow from social services’ decision to send him to live with his estranged mom (Hao Lei), a prostitute now married to an abusive fishmonger (Leon Dai). Xiang feels acutely that he is unwelcome in the family, and so finds company instead with “Big Gun”. The unlikely friendship is a welcome source of broad humour in the film, culminating in a hilarious scene where he paints the second portrait as part of his schoolwork.
Whereas the first half of the film still had some levity, Chung takes the latter half in a decidedly darker course with the subplot of Chung’s older brother’s unsolved disappearance- also apparent from the nature of the third portrait. The change in tone is handled quite abruptly and there is a clear sense that Chung and his co-screenwriter Tu Hsiang-Wen have deliberately chosen to eschew narrative continuity in favour of episodic encounters of Xiang with various characters. As a result, the film feels uneven, a whole less than the sum of its distinct parts.
Still if the film manages to remain consistently absorbing, it is due to the uniformly excellent performances of each and every one of its cast. Hao Lei is heart-wrenching as Xiang’s mother, particularly in one scene where she relates her struggles to Xiang’s teacher of surviving as a Chinese immigrant in a foreign land- her acting certainly deserving of the recent Golden Horse Best Supporting Actress win. But the biggest praise should be reserved for newcomer Bi Xiao-hai whose unaffected performance and quiet magnetism carries the entire film from start to finish.
Along the way, Chung briefly hints at societal issues of poverty, domestic violence and immigration but doesn’t dwell enough at them to make much of an impression. Instead, he keeps the film steadfastly focused as a slow-burning coming-of-age story of a young boy grappling with the changing relationships in his life. The last portrait is a befitting end to this journey, but viewers are well advised that it will take patience to get there. For those who do, you’ll be rewarded with a moving portrait of finding one’s identity.
(A flawed but ultimately quietly affecting portrait of a young boy’s search for his identity)
Review by Gabriel Chong