ReviewWriter: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
“Painted Skin” and “Mural”
As if irked by Wu'ershan's sequel to his 2008 supernatural fantasy film, "Painted Skin", Hong Kong film director Gordon Chan returns to the fray with his widely anticipated wuxia film, "The Four", which is adapted from the popular novels by Wan Ray-an about four detectives in ancient China, to prove how things are done and it turns out to be just a tad better than "Painted Skin: The Resurrection".
The film stars Deng Chao, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou, and Crystal Liu Yifeng as four detectives with almost supernatural powers working for the Divine Constabulary led by Anthony Wong, a former Royal bodyguard who resigned from his post due to his disagreements with a powerful Minister. The story begins with an overview of how the Divine Constabulary operates, with Collin Chou and Crystal Liu Yifeng being the only field operatives. During the arrestment process, they encounter the notorious debt collector, played by Ronald Cheng, and a constable from the officially sanctioned Division 6. Now that the secret Divine Constabulary is revealed to the public, they decide to recruit Ronald Cheng as their third field operative while Deng Chao's character is assigned by the Sheriff King to go as an undercover agent to infiltrate the Divine Constabulary and sabotage their investigation of counterfeit currency. It is in the second half of the film that they all discover that there is a much darker plan in action, one that involves an undead army.
As the film opens, it is easy to see why it is so highly anticipated by Chinese audiences, as the visuals and cinematography are stunning, not to mention its ensemble cast. Fans of Hong Kong TVB dramas and films will delight in seeing familiar faces here, such as Sheren Tang and Michael Tong. The soundtracks used for the film are also well suited to their respective scenes, with loud thumping drums for the action and violins and flutes for the more emotional scenes. With that said, these are the only aspects that will probably keep audiences coming for its upcoming sequels. Gordon Chan's wuxia is a handsome mess, as stirring and impressive as it is clumsy and unpolished.
For one, the characters of the film are so one-dimensional that it is a Herculean task even to remember their names, let alone emphasize with them. From the get-go, everyone is assigned to a personality stereotype that never evolves throughout the two-hour running time - Deng Chao plays the strong, silent and dark hero caught in a love triangle; Ronald Cheng plays the happy-go-lucky guy who would not be tied down; Colin Chou is the big brother of the group with a hot temper while Crystal Liu is the beautiful but emotionless girl who harbours feelings for Deng Chao's hero. In fact, even her nickname is called Emotionless, if the English subtitles are anything to go by, which seems like a copout when it comes to acting. Anthony Wong does a fine job with what he has been given, eking out the complexities to edge his character as close to the Zen-like Yoda as possible, minus the lingo, as the situation worsens.
Hogtied by a childlike script and bad translation, names lose their lyrical meaning while the narrative fumbles with the plot to the end. Even when the real villain and his motives are revealed, there is no sense of anxiety for our heroes, only questions of: why? It could be that the original novel is too long to adapt to screen, but at least take the effort to rewrite the script to explicate a little rather than attributing all the four's discoveries to Crystal Liu's character's mind-reading powers and all the romance that happens as a result of love at first sight. For example, about 10 minutes into the film, Jiang Yiyan's character's ignores her superiors to address Deng Chao's character's superior sword skills, after which we see her in subsequent scenes batting goo-goo eyes at him; you'd really have to wonder, why? Were they acquainted with each other previously that made her address him in the first place? Why is it that in the next scene with them both we see her talking intimately with him when they have only spoken twice according to the film?
Gordon Chan's "The Four" may not have achieved Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-wai's level of poetic beauty, but it is one worth praising. Unlike some filmmakers, Chan is aware of his limits with computer-generated imagery (CGI), so any imperfections in the gratuitous amounts of CGI are quickly covered up with cuts and long shots. Chan wields his camera with such practise that only comes with making films that caters to audiences' demands as opposed to films for art's sake that it is almost impossible to find nit-pick, yet it could have very well been more.
In the end, "The Four" is just another victim of hype, as it is less about four detectives as individuals who have committed themselves to uphold justice as opposed to four people who just happened to be part of 'The Four', packaged in a visually appealing fare, in both style and its stars.
"The Four" is also screened in 2D in Singapore.Cinema Online, 24 July 2012