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Film Review: The Four

2012-07-20 09:30:31        Chinese Films

Liu Yifei in "The Four."[Photo:filmbiz.asia]

Story

A city in Ancient China. Six female martial artists, led by Penglai expert Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan), report for duty to Department Six, a powerful state security organisation run by Lord Liu (Cheng Taishen). Yaohua and her group are assigned to Fourth Constable Han Long (Michael Tong) for a case involving a coin cast stolen from the Imperial Mint by Jia San (Tenky Tin). They surround Drunken Moon Inn where Jia San is arriving to sell the cast; but many other interested parties are also there that night and in the fighting and confusion Jia San escapes. Among those also present are professional debt collector Cui Lueshang (Ronald Cheng) and members of a secret investigative organisation, Divine Constabulary, which is personally sanctioned by a royal prince (Waise Lee) and outranks Department Six. Though the coin cast is recovered, Department Six takes over the running of the Imperial Mint and the Treasury Minister, Lord Xu (Zhang Songwen), is sacked. Following the death of Han Long, Yaohua is given his post, though she in fact secretly works for Lord An Shigeng (Wu Xiubo), a shipping magnate with special powers who is hatching a dastardly plan. Lord Liu suspends one of his constables, Leng Lingqi (Deng Chao), from duty for a breach of discipline but secretly tells him to infiltrate the Divine Constabulary, which he doesn't trust. Yaohua, who is attracted to Lingqi, overhears their conversation. Lingqi joins the small organisation, which is run by Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong) and includes crippled mind-reader Sheng Yayu (Crystal Liu) - whom Zhuge adopted after her family was killed - and martial artist Tie Youxia (Collin Chou). Meanwhile, Lueshang has also joined the group. Yayu is attracted to Lingqi, despite knowing his true character. Zhengwo tells his group that the case of the stolen cast is not over yet, and uncovers a scam involving forged currency that could lead to social unrest and bring down the royal family. It sets him and his group against both Department Six and the powerful An and his gang of spies.

Review

Featuring characters from a continuing series of novels by Malaysian-born WOON Swee Oan that's formed the basis for numerous TV drama series in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China (starting with ATV's The Undercover Agents, 1984), The Four is a fairly standard martial arts costume drama that boasts good-looking production design but is let down by a poor script and ordinary direction. Shot in China with a pan-Chinese cast and largely Mainland money, it has the feel more of an '80s Hong Kong production, but not in a consciously retro style. As with Hong Kong veteran Gordon CHAN's previous production, Mural, also made with the same Mainland companies and writers, the content fails to live up to the handsome wrapping.

Like Mural, The Four can't really decide what it is. For those familiar with Woon's novels and/or the TV adaptations, the many characters don't need much explanation; but for anyone else, that's a big problem, as the script is so busy fitting in plot and keeping its large cast occupied that no one really develops any individual thrust. Hong Kong veteran Anthony WONG, as the dignified leader of a secret investigative bureau, makes the strongest impression, while his "four constables" (the meaning of the film's Chinese title) just go through the usual motions of martial arts heroes. Among them, Hong Kong comedian Ronald CHENG (in a long wig) looks rather out of place and Taiwan's Collin CHOU and Mainlander DENG Chao (both in Mural) don't develop much personality.

Mainland actress Crystal LIU (Love in Disguise (2010), A Chinese Ghost Story), who plays a wheel-chaired mind reader with telekinetic powers — a character who's actually male in the novels — is suitably mysterious but rather a blank page: her love-battle with JIANG Yiyan's swordswoman over the affections of Deng's character hardly gets off the page. The more talented Jiang (Qiuxi (2009), I Phone You) has her promising moments but is perpetually hamstrung by the script. Among the large cast, it's Mainland TV actor-singer WU Xiubo (the murderer in People Mountain People Sea) who's most memorable as the jokey, laidback villain of the piece.

Chan, this time co-directing with Hong Kong journeywoman Janet CHUN (The Jade and the Pearl (2010), All's Well, End's Well 2012) rather than Danny KO (Mural, Painted Skin (2008)), throws everything into the pot: secret police organisations (but with no sense of menace), shape-shifting powers (but with only so-so effects), martial-arts action (nothing special, with TV-style wire-work), and nods to films like Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) (crime-solving) and My Own Swordsman (the group's "family" scenes). The result isn't exactly boring — thanks to the crowded plot and cast — but just very average, with no real tension, drama or thrills.

Cyrus HO's imaginative sets — iron machinery contrasted with wooden constructs — maintain visual interest, as does the well-lit widescreen photography by fellow Hong Konger LAI Yiu-fai (Infernal Affairs (2002), Wu Xia). Henry LAI's score, as in 14 Blades (2010) and White Vengeance, is weak.

The film is the first in an announced trilogy, the second of which has already begun shooting.

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