ghostly tales from our northern neighbours

dan edwards: the fourth portrait & eternity, melbourne film festival

The Fourth Portrait

The Fourth Portrait

ON THE ONE HAND IT WAS GREAT TO SEE OUR REGION’S CINEMA HIGHLIGHTED AT MIFF THIS YEAR WITH THE “ACCENT ON ASIA” STRAND. ON THE OTHER HAND THIS BRACKETING OFF OF ASIAN CONTENT REFLECTS THE UNRELENTINGLY EURO AND US-CENTRIC CINEMATIC VISION PREVALENT IN AUSTRALIA.

While the festival’s “World Panorama” program consisted almost entirely of European and American fare, cinema from our near neighbours was still packaged as an exoticised sideshow. Nonetheless, these “accented” titles provided two of the festival’s most engaging films from a pair of directorial talents only just emerging onto the world stage.

the fourth portrait

Rising Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong delivered a stunning childhood tale from the wrong side of the island with The Fourth Portrait. Taiwanese cinema has undergone something of a revival in recent years, clawing back a share of the island’s box office after years of domination by the Hollywood steamroller. Among the clutch of popular titles released over the past half-decade was Chung’s debut Parking in 2008, a solid if at times overly sentimental look at the darker, after-hours side of life in Taipei. The Fourth Portrait similarly deals with experiences lying beneath the visible flow of daily life, but it’s an altogether more complex and affecting work than Parking.

The Fourth Portrait opens with Xiang, a taciturn 10-year-old boy, left alone following his father’s sudden death. After he is caught stealing lunches at school, a gruff cleaner realises Xiang has no family at home, and through his intervention the boy is reunited with his long absent mother, now living in a rural area with a baby and a brooding second husband. As Xiang hesitantly moves into his new life with his surrogate family, his dreams become haunted by his older brother, who vanished in mysterious circumstances several years earlier. Disturbed by these nightly visions of his sibling’s wandering soul, Xiang begins to suspect his stepfather knows more about his brother’s disappearance than he is letting on.

At one level Chung’s film is a beautifully understated study of the powerlessness of childhood, strongly reminiscent of François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows (1959). Like Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in Truffaut’s film, Xiang is a boy who has experienced too much too young, and who understands far more about the world than the adults around him realise. He moves through his surrounds as an observer rather than a protagonist, trying to make sense of adult senselessness and sketching his encounters in a series of portraits illustrating his gallows humour and growing sophistication. In another nod to Truffaut, when Xiang reaches his fourth portrait, Chung’s film ends in a startling moment of reflexiveness that turns the boy’s gaze back upon the viewer—and upon Xiang himself.

The Fourth Portrait is also rich in allegorical resonances. Xiang’s missing brother is the most literal of the film’s apparitions, but Taiwan here is an island haunted by many spectres, from the elderly school cleaner’s traumatic memories of wartime Shanghai to Xiang’s mother’s more recent painful past on the mainland. Like Xiang, Taiwan has entered an era of relative freedom since the death of its patriarch, but as a political and cultural entity it remains unsure of itself and where its future lies. Xiang finds an uneasy shelter in his mother’s new home—just as Taiwan has ensured its economic survival by cosying up to Beijing—but his bullying stepfather, nursing his own dark secrets and murderous temper, is hardly a role model for the boy. If there is hope, it lies with the younger generation, expressed in Xiang’s final moment of clear sighted, unflinching self-reflection.

The allegorical undertones never feel forced however and the spare script and restrained performances prevent the story ever slipping into sentimentality or melodrama. Bi Xiaohai is wonderful as Xiang, achieving a fine balance between expression and introversion. Hao Lei is also excellent as Xiang’s mother. Best known for her lead role in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006), Hao’s performance in The Fourth Portrait earned her Taiwan’s 2010 Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The Fourth Portrait bodes well for Chung Mong-hong’s career as a budding talent of Taiwan’s contemporary film revival. While the film’s pace and domestic drama is reminiscent of the classics of Taiwan’s new wave, and the Truffaut influence is clear, The Fourth Portrait remains an original, quietly searing picture of childhood, whose atmosphere lingers long after Xiang’s probing eyes have burnt up the final frames of the film.

eternity

Thai director Sivaroj Kongsakul’s debut Eternity is another tale in which ghostly memories haunt the landscape, leaving gentle vibrations in the physical world. Much Thai cinema is replete with ghosts, spirits and slow-burn sexuality, and the influence of local master Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) is obvious here.

Eternity begins with a series of long take panoramas of a rural landscape, traversed by a man on a motorbike apparently searching for something—or someone. He finally stops at a tiny roadside shrine, prays and gazes sadly at a small house in the distance. From here we move back to the man’s first holiday in his home village with his Bangkok girlfriend. Their love is obvious in small moments of togetherness, yet they barely touch until their final night in the village, when he slides under her mosquito net and into her bed. On their way back to the capital, a discussion beside the grave of a relative segues into the girlfriend’s departing the cemetery with two grown children. She is older, slightly heavier, with the same cool grace, but now marked by an air of sadness.

This fluid sense of time carries the viewer along throughout the film, in gentle eddies and swirls of memory as past and present intermingle in the family’s Bangkok home. The teenage son echoes his father’s youthful flirtatiousness, while the father’s spectral presence is marked by flickering lights. Or maybe it’s just a fluctuation in power. Whether we read Eternity as a ghost story or a more literal tale of memories living on in the lives of those we leave behind, it’s a beautifully minimalist evocation of profound, unspoken love—and the melancholy absence that’s left with our passing.

a world apart?

Other titles in MIFF’s Accent on Asia strand showed the region’s commercial industry is powering on, particularly South Korea’s seemingly endless stream of highly popular, ultra-violent tales of male disintegration. Several Japanese titles, including Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, proved the island nation can still match Korea in terms of bloody cinematic extremes. It was The Fourth Portrait and Eternity, however, that demonstrated some of the world’s most innovative and subtly poetic works continue to come from our northern neighbours, even if here in Australia we still tend to view these films as somehow standing apart from the rest of world cinema.

Melbourne International Film Festival, various venues, July 21–Aug 7, www.miff.com.au

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg.

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011