The Fourth Wall (China, 2019)

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.