In theatrical and cinematic terminology, “the fourth wall” represents the barrier between the imaginary world of fiction and the real world of the audience. In the era of postmodernism, it’s become painfully common to “break the fourth wall”, i.e. to pierce the barrier between actors and audience, leading to all sorts of performative shenanigans both on screen and on stage. Sometimes this is merited while other times it is entirely gratuitous. Thankfully, Zhang Chong’s and Zhang Bo’s debut feature, The Fourth Wall, doesn’t wear out the concept, opting instead to explore a new meaning wherein the titular “fourth wall” is a wall within our own psyche. The results are fascinating, albeit a tad shaky in resolution.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and
deer-herder Lu Liu (also the actress’ name) is patiently going through the
mundane routine of her daily job while taking care of her uncle’s deer. When
one of her deer wanders off into the forest, she discovers a hole in the fence,
leading into a vast foggy plain in which the deer is presumably lost. She
returns home heart-broken at the loss of her deer and so refuses to go out and
celebrate for New Year. In her loneliness, she is joined by her childhood
friend and possible paramour, Ma Hai (Ziyi Wang), who informs here that he’s
experiencing an unusual and disturbing phenomenon. He has suddenly acquired
memories of an alternative life where both he and Lu Liu are different people
with a different set of experiences. Lu Liu had become an actress until a
failed marriage ruined her life, while Ma Hai was running from the law. Ma ha
begins to narrate what is happening in this alternative existence.
From then on, the film proceeds to
muddy the waters between the two realities, even introducing a third in the
process. The plot oscillates back and forth between them as Lu Liu becomes more
and more invested in her other lives, exploring worlds of what-if and
what-might-have-been. On paper this sounds as though it may fall apart at any
moment, but co-directors Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo manage to keep the
story straight and the tensions high throughout most of it. The surrealist
elements of the film, first only present in Ma Hai’s recollections, slowly
escalate until they come to a catastrophic clash. When the titular “fourth
wall” comes to shambles, it’s not between the actors and the audience, but
between the dreary and the hopeful, between the possibilities that can
radically transform a single person’s life. Lu Liu comes to the realization
that a different life might not have been what she really wanted or needed.
Much of the film is structured like a stage play, confined to a single location and dominated by dialogue and relatively simple cinematography. In one case, the location is a literal theater stage, the one where the alternate Lu Liu used to act. The script borrows bits and pieces in style from the likes of Becket, Pinter, Pirandello, and other absurdists, but it is to the credit of the screenwriters to take such an abstract idea and ground it in something as emotionally resonating as Lu Liu’s story. And actress Lu Liu certainly does the role justice, showing a deep understanding of the nuanced differences and similarities of her alternate characters. It would be too easy to simply lean hard into what separates the three characters she plays, making them unrecognizable, but Liu never falls into that trap. Her performance is exquisite throughout.
It is around the third act that the
plot begins to falter. In a strange twist of expectations, what would seem like
a climactic resolution at the end of the theater scene, transitions into a sort
of reset and another 30 minutes or so of screen time. This transition feels off
and rather out of step with the previous scenes. While the third act brings Lu
Liu’s arc to a sensible conclusion, it suffers in pacing and lacks the energy
and impact of the previous two acts. It plays more like an overlong epilogue than
a proper third act.
The script may have needed some
revisions to better integrate the last part with the rest of the story.
Nevertheless, the originality and daring approach of the film offsets whatever
occasional missteps it might have. The overall vision remains untainted, making
The Fourth Wall worth the watch.
John Atom is two things: a molecular physicist by day and a devout cinephile by night. His love for Asian cinema started way back in high school when one rainy night he decided to pick up a rather peculiar-looking DVD of a movie called Oldboy... and he was hooked! Since then, he’s watched just about every Asian film he could get his hands on, and plans to continue doing so. More recently he’s developed a new interest in science fiction, particularly in the interdependence of science and SF, and how one may influence the other.