The Fourth Portrait (第四張畫) paints a wonderful picture of the life of a young boy, Xiang played by Bi Xiao-hai (畢曉海), who struggles to find his place in a world of poverty and domestic violence. It is the second film for director Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏) who made his directorial debut with Parking in 2008.
The story begins with the death of Xiang’s father who was his sole carer. He is temporarily taken care of by the school janitor before going to live with his mother who has remarried. Xiang’s mother, Chun-lan played by Hao Lei (郝蕾), is from China and works in a hostess bar. She is too tired and broken to give Xiang the care and attention he needs. In one scene where she goes to meet Xiang’s teacher she emotionally relates the difficulties and struggles she has faced since coming to Taiwan.
The film contains elements of dark comedy, as well as more outright comedy provided by the petty criminal “Pistol” (手槍仔), played by Na Do (納豆). He forms a friendship with Xiang, leading him to engage in some petty crimes. However, although he is on the wrong side of the law, he essentially has a good heart. The friendship is part of Xiang’s search for a father figure.
This is in contrast with Xiang’s step-father played by Leon Dai (戴立忍). The step-father cares little for Xiang and seems self-absorbed. The film hints at his violent nature but there is only one scene where it is shown directly.
Throughout the film Xiang searches for love and and a place to belong. He also dreams an older brother who has gone missing. As the film draws to a conclusion a dark secret is revealed.
The film is beautifully shot in gray-blue tones that complement the world of poverty that Xiang lives in. The settings are typically decaying old buildings with not a single bright light or 7-11 to be seen. Some landscape scenes beautifully shot in saturated color provide a wonderful contrast to this depressing world.
The Fourth Portrait takes its place alongside other recent child-centred Taiwanese films like Orz Boyz and No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti. It brings up important issues of poverty, domestic violence and the place of Chinese immigrants in Taiwanese society. Although some key elements of the story aren’t fully developed, this weakness is made up for by the strong characters and excellent acting.