The Fourth Portrait

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am

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The Fourth Portrait
Bi Xiao-hai, King Shih-chieh, Hao Lei, Leon Dai
Director: Chung Mong-hung

It's not difficult to see why The Fourth Portrait secured such a wide array of critical garlands last year, clocking in with a prize at the Taipei Film Festival and then grabbing four awards (including best director and best supporting actress) at the Golden Horses.

As with No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti from 2009 - Leon Dai's small-scale, black-and-white feature which swept the boards at Taiwanese film awards in 2010 - Chung Mong-hung's second feature focuses on a child's experience of bad times.

The boy's formative years spent in a gloomy landscape are an apt analogy for the social malaise permeating the Taiwanese underclass. The country's politics is in a mess, its economy in distress and its culture undermined by melodramatic television serials and increasingly overblown pop music.

With its tragic premise, The Fourth Portrait could have been overplayed as cliched melodrama. Xiang (played by Bi Xiao-hai) struggles to survive after the death of his father, and then has problems reconciling with his estranged mother and unsympathetic stepfather. But as with his previous effort Parking - a film which began with a quirk (a man trying to find the person whose double-parked car hindered his return home to his displeased wife) but expanded into a web of interesting side stories - Chung avoids the beaten path.

There's no major waterworks moment throughout Xiang's blank-faced attempts to make do with what he has, whether it's 'borrowing' goodies from abandoned apartments with a janitor (King Shih-chieh), or being reunited with his mother (Hao Lei), a bar hostess living with a husband (Leon Dai) who doesn't take to Xiang's arrival too well.

Perhaps the only compromise with convention is in Chung's symbolism, whereby the framing device suggested by the film's title allows the boy's life story to be seen through and summarised by four pictures that he draws.

Bi's vacant expression, even when his character sees his life and values compromised, is apt for a helpless boy, and King's and Hao's subdued performances depict the angst and frustration their characters feel in a world devoid of compassion and hope. While not flawless, The Fourth Portrait still draws a sympathetic picture.

Extras: interviews with the cast.