Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Searing Portrait of a Haunted Childhood – Chung Mong-hong's "The Fourth Portrait"

The Melbourne International Film Festival drew to a close on Sunday (7 August). Unfortunately the program was pretty light on films from China this year – perhaps a lingering affect of the festival's tiff with the Chinese government back in 2009 over the documentary 10 Conditions of Love. There were a handful of mainland titles screened, however, which I'll be reviewing in the next couple of posts. First up though is Chung Mong-hong's The Fourth Portrait (2010) from Taiwan.

A Searing Portrait of a Haunted Childhood – Chung Mong-hong's The Fourth Portrait

Bi Xiaohai as Xiang in Chung Mong-hong's wonderful second feature The Fourth Portrait.

Chung Mong-hong's extraordinary second feature The Fourth Portrait (Di si zhang hua) offers a Taiwanese tale from the wrong side of the island, eschewing the concrete jungle of Taipei for the verdant vegetation of the island's poorer rural areas. The film's heavily saturated colour palette only adds to its dream-like tropical ambience – but it's a dream in which nightmares constantly lurk at the edge of frame.

Director Chung Mong-hong made his debut with Parking back in 2008 – which I wrote about here – a solid if overly sentimental commercial feature that delved into the darker, after-hours side of life in Taipei. The Fourth Portrait similarly deals with the memories and experiences lying beneath the visible flow of daily life, but it's an altogether more complex and evocative work than Parking.

The film opens with Xiang, a taciturn 10 year-old boy, being left alone by his father's sudden death. After he is caught stealing lunches at school, a gruff cleaner realises Xiang has no family at home, and through his intervention the boy is reunited with his long absent mother, now living in a rural area with a baby and her brooding new husband. As Xiang hesitantly enters into a new life with his surrogate family, he begins to dream about his older brother, who vanished in mysterious circumstances several years earlier. Disturbed by these nightly visions of his sibling's wondering soul, Xiang begins to suspect his stepfather knows more about his brother's disappearance than he is letting on.

Xiang with the gruff school cleaner in The Fourth Portrait.

At one level Chung's film is a beautifully understated study of the powerlessness of childhood, strongly reminiscent of François Truffaut's classic debut The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959). Like Jean-Pierre Léaud's character in Truffaut's film, Xiang is a boy who has experienced too much too young, and who understands far more about the world than the adults around him realise. He moves through his surrounds as an observer rather than a protagonist, trying to make sense of adult senselessness, and sketching his encounters in a series of portraits illustrating his gallows humour and growing sophistication. In another nod to Truffaut, when Xiang reaches his fourth portrait, Chung's film ends in a startling moment of reflexiveness that turns the boys gaze back upon the viewer – and upon Xiang himself.

The Fourth Portrait can be also read as a allegory for Taiwan's troubled place in the world. Xiang's missing brother is the most literal of the film's apparitions, but Taiwan here is an island haunted by many spectres, from the traumatic wartime memories of the school cleaner, to Xiang's mother's painful past on the mainland. Like Xiang, Taiwan has lost its patriarch and entered an era of relative freedom, yet as a political and cultural entity it remains unsure of itself and where its future lies. Xiang finds an uneasy shelter in his mother's new home – just as Taiwan has tried to ensure its economic survival by cosying up to Beijing – but his bullying step-father, nursing his own dark secrets and murderous temper, is hardly a role model for the boy. If there is hope, it lies with the younger generation, expressed in Xiang's final moment of clear sighted, unflinching self-examination.

The allegorical resonances of The Fourth Portrait never feel forced, and the spare script and restrained performances prevent the story ever slipping into sentimentality or melodrama. Bi Xiaohai is wonderful as the introverted Xiang, achieving a fine balance between expression and introversion. Leon Dai plays Xiang's stepfather with a contained menace (Dai also had a role in Parking), and Hao Lei is excellent as Xiang's mother, carrying her own scars from her life on mainland China. Best known for her lead role in  Lou Ye's Summer Palace in 2006, Hao's performance in The Fourth Portrait earned her Taiwan's 2010 Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Leon Dai (left) as Xiang's stepfather, and Hao Lei as his mother in The Fourth Portrait.

The Fourth Portrait
bodes well for Chung Mong-hong's career as a budding talent of Taiwan's contemporary film revival. If Parking proved he could produce thoughtful commercial product, The Fourth Portrait reveals his potential to evolve into a truly great director. While the film's pace and domestic drama is reminiscent of the classics of Taiwan's new wave, and the Truffaut influence is clear, The Fourth Portrait is an original, quietly searing picture of childhood, whose atmosphere lingers long after Xiang's probing eyes have burnt up the final frames of the film.

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