Tuesday 16 September 2014

The Four (2012)

Directors: Gordon Chan and Janet Chun
Stars: Deng Chao, Liu Yi Fei, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou and Anthony Wong
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
The Four, one of many adaptations of a series of novels by Woon Swee Oan, is an infuriating picture that throws so much at us that multiple viewings are required to avoid getting lost. My first time through was confusing for quite a while, the second was clearer while the third was a lot of fun. I'm fond of it now but it really shouldn't take three times through to grasp a plot. Much of the problem boils down to it being a sort of Chinese X-Men which introduces us to so many characters so quickly that it's tough to keep track of them. Some of it is, however, deliberate choice, as if the filmmakers wanted us to have to watch twice to figure it all out. For instance, we see many of the lead characters in the opening sequence, a one shot CGI deal with a camera swooping and soaring like a bird, literally as we're vaguely following a pigeon for surveillance purposes. They appear like featured extras, enough to stand out from the crowd, marked as people we should notice, but only for a moment before they're gone again and the pigeon moves on.

While we see most of the characters during this opening sequence, we have to wait until the first action scene to be introduced to what they do, albeit so quickly that it's tough to keep track. They all head over to the Drunken Moon, a rather delightful inn, to watch Jia San try to sell a fake coin cast that presumably ties to the rampant forgery going on in the town. A debt collector known as Life Snatcher meets him, but when he realises that their wine is poisoned, all hell breaks loose. Life Snatcher battles another martial arts master, while others use wilder talents to stop Jia San escaping with use of body duplication magic. One young lady in a wheelchair hurls things around telekinetically. Her boss uses qigong power to pull people towards him like a tractor beam. We watch this all unfold at lightning speed until they all end up outside, trapped by the constabulary known as Department Six, who descended en masse on the inn and aim to arrest everyone. Only now do we get to the point, that we have a clash of authorities going on.

Department Six are the standard police force around here and they scare most people silly because they exude brutal and militaristic power. They're fond of intimidation tactics and shows of force, which lead to overkill shows like what we've just seen. Their uniforms are dark and fetishistic, as are their headquarters which are vast, echoing and arrogant in their overt worship of power. Their commandant is Lord Liu who runs Department Six through a standard chain of command with four supreme constables. It took me a long while to realise that these characters, who were introduced much earlier than this, are not the Four of the title. Then again, this is an origin story, so we're watching how the Four come together and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. At this point, one them works for Department Six; he's Cold Blood, the master who fought Life Snatcher at the Drunken Moon, but he's about to be publicly fired but secretly tasked by Lord Liu with infiltrating the Divine Constabulary, the secret organisation we've just met.
The Divine Constabulary couldn't be any more different than Department Six if that was the basis of its funding. I loved everything about them except the contradiction that sets them up. Apparently, they're a secret police force, small and select, which reports directly to the emperor through their calm, polite and humble leader, Zhuge Zhengwo, the man with the tractor beam power. Department Six haven't heard of them, so plan to arrest them at the Drunken Moon until the Prince arrives and orders Zhuge to show Lord Liu his imperial badge of office. Yet this secret police force hitherto unnoticed has their own headquarters in town with a sign on the door reading 'Divine Constabulary'. That anomalous sign notwithstanding, it's a glorious place. It's utterly organic, a light and inviting home full of wood and paper, space and curves. Nobody wears uniforms and nobody barks orders. The atmosphere is one of trust and the group of people there feel far more like a family than a police force.

Having saved Life Snatcher from arrest by Department Six, Zhuge invites him to stay, to become one of them. He wants to leave, but is suckered into staying through flattery and wine. Lots of wine. Aunt Poise from the Drunken Moon brings good wine and they drink for free. With Life Snatcher under their roof, the Divine Constabulary now have three of the Four within their organisation, the other two being Iron Hands and Emotionless. Emotionless is the more obvious; she's the telekinetic girl in the wheelchair, who sees into people's thoughts and quantifies the strength of their qigong power. To go where she can't, she also has a bird, a pigeon called Skywings who led us on that merry dance through the sky to show us the key players during the opening credits. Iron Hands is their blacksmith and carpenter, who can forge glorious devices for the group, including a wonderful wheelchair/Segway for Emotionless to power with her mind. Presumably he built the secret doors and awesome steampunk library too. I want.

There are many others, but those are the major players because they're ranked among the Four, even if that doesn't seem to be official nomenclature. They're colourfully named, of course: Big Wolf, Dingdong, Guts and Bell, who in the form of Tina Xiang may just be the cutest creature I've ever seen. And into their ranks comes Cold Blood to shake everything up. He isn't merely a Department Six constable undercover, he's also some sort of moody beast man who was raised by wolves and he quite obviously has the hots for Emotionless. Other key players include Ji Yaohua, the leader of the ladies hired into Department Six at the beginning of the film, on the orders of the Prince, and Lord An Shigeng, the God of Wealth, who she's really working for and who's clearly highlighted as the villain of the piece very soon into the picture. Lord An has the coolest moves yet: the ability to freeze people or burn them alive at a single touch. Stopping a martial arts master from killing you with his sword by catching it in your teeth is a pretty neat trick too.
With this dizzying array of characters finally introduced in about a quarter of the film's two hour running time, we can start to watch their dynamics click into gear like a clockwork plot. Sure, this may all happen against a cool background of imaginative locations, wirework fights and Machiavellian intrigue, but really the plot isn't particularly interesting. We know after twenty minutes that it's all going to come down to a big battle with the big boss, Lord An, and given that this is the first part of a planned trilogy we know the good guys at the Divine Constabulary are going to win. This knowledge lessens the tension and renders some of the subplots meaningless, like the battle between Department Six and the Divine Constabulary. Like the heroes are ever in danger of losing their mandate to the local guys? To be frank, at this point, do we even care about the rampant forgery plaguing the town? Again, we know that's all going to get taken care of one way or another. We're too busy watching the people.

Ronald Cheng is the most engaging of the Four as Life Snatcher. He's a prolific actor who always provides good entertainment and he works well as the will he/won't he outsider who is always going to join in the end. Collin Chou has promise as Iron Hands and absolutely looks the part. He's the least used of the Four, so it's the writing that lets the character down rather than the actor. The moody stylings of Liu Yi Fei and Deng Chao as Emotionless and Cold Blood respectively might endear them to a particular demographic but I found them less interesting because they're a notably emo couple. Above the Four is Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zhengwo. He's by far the most experienced member of the cast, typecast for years as notably outrageous villains, not least in his first Hong Kong Film Award winning role as the serial killer who baked his victims into meat pies in The Untold Story. He steals every scene he's in here by being the opposite of outrageous, making us very aware that he has immense power but keeping it constantly in check.

On the side of the villains, Wu Xiu Bo is delightfully cocky as Lord An, at his best when he's commanding an army of reanimated corpses. Jiang Yi Yan is more vanilla as Ji Yaohua, not particularly memorable until her fight with Emotionless, which is highly entertaining. As an origin story, there's less attention given to the villains though and far more to those little dynamics between the characters that will no doubt work as ongoing subplots throughout the sequels. Lord An is more apparent here than, say, the villains in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, another origin story with an ensemble cast of characters, but he and his minions clearly don't get the attention that the ongoing heroes do. The biggest problem the script has is in its attempt to cram so much in, because we'd appreciate so much of this all the more if we didn't miss it by blinking. It's fine for us to miss little background details, because that sort of thing will draw us back to watch again, but losing introductions and key plot points like explaining the title is unforgiveable.
And, at the end of the day, the speed at which this unfolds is both what is most memorable about the film and its biggest flaw. The fights are cool but they're so frantic that we often can't catch what's going on. It took me two viewings to nail down who some of the minor characters were, why they were in the picture and what purpose they served, all because they're skipped over so quickly. Here's a key scene in the plot, but don't dally on it because here's another one and, if you didn't catch the first one, the next three won't make any sense at all. On one level, this would have worked much better had it been slowed down to fit a four hour mini-series instead of a two hour film. Perhaps I should seek out the TV series on the Hong Kong channel TVB, also titled The Four, which ran for 24 episodes of 45 minutes each. Then again, if we could easily figure out what's going on in a slower version of this film, its other flaws would become much more apparent and those are even more problematic.

Put simply, while this is a Chinese wuxia movie whose trappings couldn't be mistaken as being from any other culture, it's notably reminiscent of western superhero movies. The fact that I much prefer the look and feel of pictures like this to anything I've seen in a Marvel superhero movie doesn't mean that it isn't acutely derivative. In what is becoming a sad trend, this is a Hollywood action movie in Chinese clothes, for all that the source material was penned by a Malaysian Chinese novelist who studied in Taiwan and lives in Hong Kong. It's formulaic stuff which tries to cloak its unoriginality in its blistering pace but fails because the more interested we become in the characters, the more we realise that their powers aren't traditionally Chinese, they're just mutant powers from X-Men and its like translated into vaguely Chinese characteristics. Zhuge is Professor X, the Divine Constabulary is his school for mutants, Emotionless is a Rogue/Phoenix hybrid and so on. If you can get past that, this is fun action fluff. After enough viewings.

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