The Fourth Portrait (Taiwan, 2010)


In celebration of the Centennial of the Republic of China, the Walter Reade Theater hosts a rare panorama of the ever-surprising Taiwanese Cinema – from the intimate looks at daily life in the early 1960s, to the breathtaking new wave of filmmakers that arose in the 1980s (such as Hou HsiaoHsien and Edward Yang), and on to the fresh turning point marked by recent Taiwanese hits.

Presently, Taiwan”s film industry is enjoying what many are calling a “Golden Transition Period”. What this ultimately translates to is that although Taiwanese films can compete in the global market, mainly through the aid of co-productions, the filmmaker is at the mercy of their financiers. Filmmakers can receive government funding in order to make and distribute their films, but the maximum amount of aid provided covers only a third of the overall budget. The other two-thirds become the personal responsibility of the director and their executive producer. To add further strain on an already complicated system, once filmmakers collect their government funding, they are then obligated to finish and release the film, whether or not that means financially bankrupting themselves to get it done. Thus, unlike other regional cinemas, where there is a somewhat clear division between mainstream and independent films, in Taiwan every working director is an indie filmmaker since they are all in a never-ending search for completion funds.

To offset these difficulties, Taiwanese filmmakers have resorted to guerilla tactics. Many  have adopted the aesthetics of digital filmmaking and developed small, close-knit crews who operate on a very low budget with oftentimes simple equipment. As a result, the documentary has been a very important genre in Taiwanese cinema since the lifting of Martial Law in 1987. This is bolstered by the fact that there are several film festivals and even a channel, PTC (Public Television Channel), on which to view these works.

Besides that option, the second route a filmmaker can take is by catering to the audience. Although Hollywood movies have 95% of the Taiwanese market share and various other media outlets constantly wrestle for the audience”s attention, a savvy enough studio with the right kind in packaging, e.g. front-loading the film with bankable stars, big budget spectacles or playing to mainstream trends, just as Wei Tei-Sheng”s populist melodrama Cape No. 7 (Hai Jiao Qi Hao, 2008; review here) and Doze Niu”s gangster film Monga (2010, review here) have done.

Standing firmly in-between these two poles is Chung Mong-Hong, a director who has been billed as a promising new voice in Taiwanese cinema. He is a disciple of Hou Hsiao-Hsien in more ways than just style and philosophy. Chung”s first experience with the Taiwanese New Wave goes all the way back to the mid-80s when he took his girlfriend to a local theater to catch Edward Yang”s Qing Mei Zhu Ma (Taipei Story, 1985) and was amused to find that only one other person was present for the film”s screening, a man who didn”t even bother to wait until the end of the first act before making a quick exit out of the theater. This intersection between Chung”s personal and professional life would take an even odder turn years later when Hou Hsiao-Hsien”s mother-in-law, most likely a connection made due to all of the director”s work in commercials, offered to put up the money to purchase a home for Chung nbso online casino reviews and his family. The fledgling director not wanting to pass up such a once in a lifetime opportunity took the money but invested it not on a home mortgage but on his first feature, Ting Che (Parking, 2008; review here), a favorite on the festival circuit.

Building upon the momentum gained from his debut, Chung quickly went to work on The Fourth Portrait (2010) taking the aesthetics of the art film and blending them with the conventions of the family melodrama. The bleak interior drama revolves around ten year old Chu Wen-hsiang (Bi Xiao-Hai) who is forced back into his mother”s care after his father dies in the film”s opening. Living with his mother, played by Hao Lei, and her new husband, Leon Dai, Chu struggles to get accustomed to his new life, but the past and a missing older brother keep Chu from having anything even remotely like a normal childhood.

During the Conference on Taiwanese Cinema held at the Walter Reade Theater, when the group panel was asked about the defining traits of the Post-New Wave directors several important points were made. The first was that directors like Chung Mong-Hong are constantly asking themselves and their audience, be they Taiwanese or foreign, “What is the local?” Especially since many recent films coming out of Taiwan are co-productions, utilizing popular genres and themes to bring the local film industry back from the brink of oblivion, it is just as important to cater to the international as well as the domestic market if a filmmaker wants to continue their directing career. Just as Chung”s film does by blurring genre boundaries by having had a sprinkle of art house melodrama with a pinch of psychological horror, ghost story, coming-of-age fable and social realism, there is something for every film fan to gravitate towards. Of course, it is this specific characteristic that have many critics labeling Chung”s sophomore effort as directionless. Though that criticism is a valid one, especially in regards to The Fourth Portrait“s anti-climactic ending, it is unfair to put a work down just because of narrative excess.

The Fourth Portrait works best as a mood piece. Adopting a somewhat episodic structure, Chung”s feature is really more of a series of vignettes. Nagao Nakashima, the film”s cinematographer, carefully coordinates each scene in the film around a specific color palette, i.e. yellow to mark Wen-hsiang”s life with his grandfather, blue to represent death, and gaudy neon for the club scenes with the mother. Chung and Nagao”s careful attention to the film”s  visual aesthetics contribute to enveloping the viewer in the harsh reality of Wen-hsiang”s life. The images and scenes that are conjured up on screen are at once beautiful and melancholic. Chung”s film shows a little boy born into a broken family, punished for sins he never committed and ultimately doomed to a hardscrabble life. Offering no solutions or happy endings The Fourth Portrait does away with the false optimism of the healthy realist dramas of the 50s and 60s, dabbling in melodrama it evoked the work of Taiwanese directors in the 1970s and its documentary-like eye to detail evokes the art-house work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. With only two films under his belt, Chung Mong-Hong has rightfully carved a niche for himself in Taiwan”s burgeoning film scene and stands on the shoulders of many important artists and innovators in the industry.