Four, The


May 6, 2013

The Four (2012)
Director: Gordon Chan and Janet Chun
Writers: Gordon Chan, Maria Wong, and Frankie Tam
Starring: Deng Chao, Liu Yifei, Collin Chou, Anthony Wong

The Plot: The Four is a period tale that focuses on a town that is being threatened by counterfeit money. There are two units that are initially tasked with finding the culprits behind this illegal operation. The two groups, The Divine Constabulary and Department Six, are completely different from one another in every way. Department Six is a very covert unit that works within the shadows and they are much more in tune with the general bureaucracy found in government. The Divine Constabulary, however, is much more ethical in general. This group is very special, and not just because they have a nice sense of social ethics, but all members seem to have mastered their martial art to such a degree that they now harness supernatural powers. Reading minds and shooting projectiles are simply everyday activities within the Divine Constabulary clubhouse. Lengxue (Deng Chao) is a member of Department Six, but he is asked by their leader to go undercover within the Divine Constabulary. After a very public firing, Lengxue is eventually welcomed into The Divine Constabulary, and he befriends all who are involved. As you have maybe guessed, he will have a very difficult decision to make in the near future (which side will he choose!?), but along the way he must help take down this counterfeiting operation and bring justice to those who would fight against it.

The Review
There have been some changes within Chinese cinema over the past few years. Changes that have, unfortunately, left many oldschool Hong Kong movie fans feeling rather cold. Although there are still some fun titles popping, the mainland has certainly produced a noticeable change in what used to be the dominant Hong Kong style. The HK film industry of the nineties is now so far away from the contemporary world of Chinese cinema, that the two markets can no longer truly be compared. The Chinese market is all about high budgeted spectacles that more-often-than-not produce a great deal of patriotism and cinematic chest beating. In comparison to the Hong Kong style, which was without budget but always free wheeling and blunt, this new style can be seen as a bit… well, boring. Hong Kong movie fans of the past usually became diehards due to their love for the strange sensibilities that this burgeoning marketplace produced. Indeed, with 90 minute movies nearly going the way of the dodo within contemporary Chinese cinema, recent films from this area have had trouble connecting with cult film audiences. Yet, due to their higher budgetary standards, these films have been pushing their way into the mainstream. Well Go USA!, who are responsible for many of these new Western releases, are carried regularly in Walmart stores across the United States. While these movies are, hopefully, making a profit here in the west, can Hong Kong film fans be swayed back to the motherland? With releases like Tai Chi Zero, Tai Chi Hero, and arguably even Wu Dang, there has been a decent amount of hope found in the scene. Sure, the movies are still long, and the budgets make them seem very Hollywood, but these films show that genre cinema is not dead within China. While The Four can be a bit of a mixed bag, it too shows some promise for fans of the Hong Kong film market.

The Four has regularly been accused of unrepentantly borrowing from Hollywood cinema. Indeed, there is a certain connection that the movie has with Marvel Comics’ X-Men, but it’s a tenuous link at best. The Marvel universe isn’t the only area where superheroes can be found, and in this movie there’s no discussions of genetic mutations being the explanation for the special powers held by the main cast. Yet, despite this, any lack of originality that the film has isn’t ultimately its greatest threat. Doing the whole “supernatural powers via kung fu” thing isn’t a bad idea at all, to be honest. When it is presented in as broad a fashion as it is here, it showcases something that is rarely seen in Chinese film. No, the biggest detriment to The Four is something much more common to the marketplace. It’s the convoluted plot and the very relaxed pacing of the film. If this were an exact duplicate of the Hollywood superhero genre, then one would hope that the filmmakers would try to borrow from their action-ever-ten-minutes aesthetic. In a Marvel movie, if the film warrants a two hour running time, then chances are it is going to be a global affair that warrants the long running time. Yet, the Four doesn’t precisely live up to similar expectations. Instead, we’ve got a very localized story that is padded with extraneous material that doesn’t add much to the overall feel of the movie. This could have been shave by thirty minutes, with several plot strands simplified, and it would have been an action spectacle.

Despite issues with both the plot and the pace, The Four is nothing if not stylish. The overall glamor and visual brilliance of the project is almost worth the price of admission alone. There are some very serious negatives that can be leveled at the film, but it’s hard to not take its stylish approach to action cinema fairly serious. From that opening shot, that has the appearance of a massive one-take crane sequence (helped by some decent CGI, of course), to the various charming visual cues that are thrown in throughout the movie, the movie comes across as a very slick piece of cinematic entertainment. A favorite sequence of mine is a quick shot that has the camera placed under a glass cage while we watch a character step through various puddles of water on the opposite side of this glass wall. The camera pans with him as he walks along, with more water pouring down, and it’s clear that this little sequence adds very little to any complexities within the film – but instead it’s simply meant to be cool. In that context, it sure does work. Such shots are not anything that can be considered as new, but within this action genre, that is lifted by a multitude of special effects, it creates a stylish world that manages to inject a slight dose of originality into this project.

While I dare not attempt to try and present myself as an expert on the films of Gordon Chan, I can say that he is a rather complex figure in the world of Chinese cinema. Directing genre greats like Fist of Legend (probably my favorite kung fu film of the 90s) and Beast Cops, he cemented his name in film history long ago. However, he is a filmmaker who has managed to stay pretty busy throughout the years. So, while consistently adding to his filmography on a yearly basis, there’s bound to be a few stinkers in there as well. While I would not say that The Four is a lesser work from him, it of course does not manage to catch up with the best work within his library. Instead, it shows Chan adapting to the new world of Chinese cinema. It is another step for him into this Eastern Hollywood market, and for what it is, it’s one of the more entertaining ventures that I have recently seen coming from this region.

The Conclusion
Destined for a sequel, The Four has enough going for it to warrant a recommendation. However, there’s no doubting that it could have done well to shave thirty minutes off of its runtime. As it is, this is surely the most interesting cloak-and-dagger-martial-arts-superhero-period film that you will see this year! It gets a three out of five.