Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Set in a ramshackle coastal region of Taiwan, The Fourth Portrait begins with ten-year-old Xiang (Bi Xiao-hai) quietly watching his father pass away in a hospital bed. Though clever and wise beyond his years, it becomes startlingly clear that the boy is now alone in the world.
The scenes in the aftermath of his father’s passing are neither overwhelmed by grief nor sorrow, but rather contemplative in its near wordless depictions of an adolescent orphan facing an uncertain future. He returns home to a vacant house, washes his own clothes by the river and steals lunchboxes from school.
This prologue to Xiang’s tale already establishes director Chung Mong-hong’s (Parking) leisurely style and the richly nuanced tone of the rest of the movie. The story isn’t what anyone would define as hasty but it’s that attention to mood and texture that makes The Fourth Portrait so powerful in its character study.
Soon the young boy is temporarily taken in by an initially gruff but eventually gracious janitor at his school. Surprisingly, Xiang’s estranged mother Chun-lan (Hao Lei), then shows up to take the boy in. Life gets more comfortable for the boy as he moves in with his mom but sadly gets even lonelier in his new environment.
His stepfather (Leon Dai) is a cold, detached ticking time bomb and while Chun-lan truly does love her son and is sympathetic in her own right, she barely has time to care for Xiang amidst trying to earn a decent living as a hostess in a seedy neon-bathed KTV nightspot.
Providing a break from the melancholy for Xiang (and the audience) is his burgeoning friendship with petty crook (Lin Yu-chih) who hilariously calls himself ‘Big Gun’. Xiang even gets drawn into a series of small-time heists (including robbing his own class) with his rotund buddy.
As much as ‘Big Gun’ seems like a terrible influence, his warm-hearted nature and comical tendencies makes him a comforting big brother figure, making Xiang feel safer and more at home on the streets than in his unaffectionate new household.
The film meanders in its focus, sometimes veering to provide glimpses of its secondary characters independent of their relationship with Xiang. These stories, while brief, are equally compelling and provide brilliant moments that run the gamut of emotions.
We witness Chun-lan being humiliated and objectified by local gangsters during her work and we get the idea that this is not an uncommon occurrence. When Chun-lan talks to one of Xiang’s teachers in a parent-teacher meeting, we then learn of her difficult back-story as a disillusioned immigrant from the mainland.
We also take time to see the more light-hearted exploits of ‘Big Gun’ and discover that behind his carefree demeanour is a man struggling in the doldrums. Much like how the film is chaptered by Xiang’s four portraits, each detailing a pivotal point in his life, the narrative sketches out vivid and moving stories for all involved.
The Fourth Portrait’s structure is loose and novel-like which allows for a Dickensian approach but also frustrates because of how elusive it is. The drifty story is so beautifully framed and shot that its vibrant palette provides just as much pleasure and engrossment as its naturalistic look at the flaws and finer points of its all-too-human protagonists.
Bi Xiao-hai is simply marvellous in his portrayal of Xiang. With little dialogue, the boy is forced to play lingering Ozu-eque scenes just with body language and calibrated expression – which he does effortlessly. Similarly the rest of the cast emotes subtly (except for the broadly comic, Lin Yu-chih) and are perfectly wonderful in their minimalism.
About Hidzir Junaini
Hidzir Junaini is 24-years-old and a wealthy playboy billionaire by day and a caped crusader by night. Only one of those is true. He’s actually a freelance writer, blogger, full-time film buff and some-time socially awkward nerd. He also writes about music, restaurants and nightlife for MetroWize Asia.
Hidzir was the winner of the inaugural inSing Movie Lover contest that garnered over 1,000 participants. The Movie Lover contest is a search for a candidate who possesses outstanding passion for movies and a talent for writing engaging movie reviews.