Wang Wanrui, post-doctoral researcher, Taiwan Research Center, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Following the documentary Doctor (2006) and the drama Parking (2008), The Fourth Portrait (2010), director Zhong Menghong’s third feature-length film, won the 47th Annual Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival’s “Outstanding Taiwanese Film” and “Best Director” awards, as well as the 12th Annual Taipei Film Festival’s “Best Drama” prize. A well-known director of TV commercials and a film instructor, Zhong emphasizes settings and color tones in his films, showing great concern for society’s downtrodden. In particular, the plight of children and adolescents in contemporary society is an important theme in each of his three feature films.
The Fourth Portrait begins with the death of ten year-old Xiao Xiang’s father. With the help of a school worker the boy goes to live with his mother’s family, but his stepfather scorns and ridicules him. What pains Xiao Xiang most, however, is his older brother’s disappearance. In a dream Xiao Xiang sees his brother walking on a wind embankment and begins to suspect he’s been murdered. A police investigation finds a child’s tennis shoes and footprints on a breakwater block, revealing that the stepfather is guilty of manslaughter. Though the narrative structure is similar to that of a standard detective story, the tragedy is unveiled step-by-step in a series of four drawings that Xiao Xiang creates, a visual journey. The four pictures are Xiao Xiang’s father’s funeral portrait, his friend Whacker’s penis, his brother running through a forest, and a close-up of Xiao Xiang at the end of the film. The story is told from a child’s perspective, so audiences follow Xiao Xiang as he solves the mystery and experience his process of self-affirmation as well.
As a child whose mother has abandoned him and whose father has passed away, Xiao Xiang is like a marginalized object, drawing pictures his sole means of establishing a link between himself and other people. When his father dies, Xiao Xiang is suddenly orphaned – by sketching a funeral portrait of his dad Xiao Xiang displays his ultimate emotional connection with the man, a confirmation of the father-son relationship. His friend Whacker’s penis is the subject of the second drawing. To Xiaoxiang, the organ doesn’t only represent the awakening of sexual consciousness but is also a connection to society. And Whacker, his own father’s sole caretaker, is a mirror for Xiao Xiang, a supportive friend. The third picture is a link between Xiao Xiang and his missing brother; it resembles the first drawing in that Xiao Xiang’s mother – an immigrant who married his Taiwanese laborer father – is now his only remaining blood relative. Xiao Xing’s stepfather is on guard against the boy, however, cursing and threatening him, because he suspects that Xiao Xiang has intuited the truth about his older brother’s death. For the “fourth portrait” the director abandons two-dimensional drawing, showing close-ups of Xiao Xiang’s face directly on the screen instead. On the one hand Xiao Xiang looks at his own reflection in the mirror, and other hand regards the audience beyond the movie camera. The interactive gaze can perhaps be said to be the process of an object in search of subjectivity.
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