Review: Chung Mong-hong’s “The Fourth Portrait”

Twice in The Fourth Portrait, Chung Mong-hong’s downbeat, episodic, and almost surreally fragmented second feature, Wen-hsiang (Bi Xiao-hai), the ten-year old boy at the narrative’s center, enters, and emerges from, dark tunnels.  The first time, he enters a tunnel to retrieve a shirt that drifts away from him as he washes it at a river.  The second time, he is on a train with his mainlander mother Chun-lan (Hao Lei), who retrieves him to live with her, after having abandoned him years before.  This act of traversing dark passages neatly serves as a central metaphor for most of the characters in this film, set mostly in depressed backwaters of the Taiwan countryside.  Even though The Fourth Portrait is set in the present day, it’s very difficult to tell from most outward appearances, this setting being far from the modern urban landscapes of Taipei.  The film’s bright, deeply saturated colors, ranging from lush forest greenery to the neon of a karaoke bar, forms a sharp contrast to the darkness of the characters’ existences.

At the outset, Wen-hsiang has lost his father, and is forced to fend for himself, which he does by stealing others’ lunchboxes from his school.  He is caught by Chang (King Shih-chieh), the school’s caretaker, who relates a story of a traumatic experience from his own childhood fifty years earlier when his home was bombed by the Japanese in his native Shanghai.  Chang, despite his gruff exterior, begins looking after the boy, taking along with him as he raids a destroyed, abandoned house for objects to sell to earn money to give to Wen-hsiang.  Soon after, Wen-hsiang’s mother collects him to live with her new husband (Leon Dai), a fish seller who is instantly hostile to his stepson.  The couple also has a baby of their own.  Chun-lan lives a rather harsh existence as a marginalized Mainland Chinese immigrant in Taiwan, escaping dire circumstances in her homeland only to end up as a bar hostess servicing surly gangsters and coming home to a churlish, violent husband.  One of the film’s best scenes is a monologue Chun-lan delivers to Wen-hsiang’s teacher (Terri Kwan), expressing the travails of her life and the sacrifices she went through to get her hard-earned Taiwanese identity card.  A narrative thread that dominates the second half of the film concerns Wen-hsiang’s older brother, who lived with their mother and stepfather, who has now been missing for a long time.  Wen-hsiang often dreams about his brother, and his quest to learn what happens to him becomes a growing obsession.  In the midst of this rather depressing milieu, some comic relief is provided courtesy of a portly petty thief (comedian Na Dow) who calls himself “Big Gun,” who meets and befriends Wen-hsiang, taking the boy along on his robbery sprees.

The Fourth Portrait takes its title from Wen-hsiang’s penchant for drawing, and is structured around pictures the boy draws of key features of his existence.  The film’s tone is markedly different from Chung Mong-hong’s previous feature Parking, which had much more comedy, a sort of Taipei After Hours.  Chung’s nonlinear method of telling his story, at least initially, makes it difficult to immediately discern the relationships between people and to connect the episodes that are presented here almost like a puzzle.  The necessary information is doled out slowly and gradually over the course of the film, which may cause audience confusion (as it did to at least one viewer at this past Friday night’s screening).  Also, one major question remains unanswered: why did Chun-lan separate the brothers in the first place, only taking her older child to live with her and leaving Wen-hsiang to stay with his father?  This potential flaw is mostly overcome by Chung’s intriguing stylistics, most especially his visual palette, which is never less than strikingly beautiful.  The Fourth Portrait also benefits greatly from brilliant performances all around; Bi remarkably essays Wen-hsiang as a tough, plucky, resilient kid who navigates his harsh world and the troubled adults who inhabit it.  Hao Lei, best known for her excellent turn in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, is just as impressive here as the mother who makes rather ill-advised life choices, yet is never less than deeply sympathetic.  Actor-director Leon Dai (Twenty Something Taipei, No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti), who also appeared in Parking, is riveting, adding considerable depth and shading to a character who, at least on paper, would seem to come across as simple a one-dimensionally evil character.  The Fourth Portrait, along with Parking, impressively exhibits the considerable range of its director, who is shaping up to be one of the most interesting to emerge in recent Taiwanese cinema.