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Gordon Chan continues to cement his position as one of China’s top blockbuster directors, following up his hits “Painted Skin” and “Mural” with big budget martial arts fantasy “The Four”. Co-directed by Janet Chun (“The Jade and the Pearl”) and with action choreography by Ku Huan Chiu (“14 Blades”), the film is loosely based upon a series of hugely popular wuxia novels written by Wen Ruian in the 1970s. Boasting lavish production values and special effects, the film’s impressive cast is a mixture of top Mainland and Hong Kong talent, including Anthony Wong (“Motorway”), Crystal Liu (“A Chinese Ghost Story”), Ronald Cheng (“Vulgaria”), and Chan’s “Mural” stars Deng Chao and Collin Chou.
The film revolves around the Divine Constabulary, a mysterious organisation in service to the Emperor in the imperial capital, who clash heads with law enforcement bureau Department Six over a counterfeit currency case that threatens to cause chaos across the empire. Led by Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong), the Constabulary is made up of officers with special powers, including wheelchair bound psychic Emotionless (Crystal Liu), the mighty Iron Fist (Collin Chou) and wine loving, fast thinking new recruit Life Stealer (Ronald Cheng), plus Leng Lingqi (Deng Chao), who has been sent in undercover by Department Six head Lord Bu (Cheng Taishen, “Under the Hawthorn Tree”) to uncover their secrets. Using the currency scheme to further his own ends is the sinister An Shigeng (Wu Xiu Bo), who uses femme fatale Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan, “Rest on your Shoulder”), to try and ensure the success of his conspiracy.
There’s certainly a lot going on in “The Four”, with a variety of plots, subplots, schemes, hidden identities and strained romances all bustling for attention, Chan and Chun having revisioned Wen Ruian’s text as a kind of Chinese period set “X-Men”. Indeed, the whole counterfeit money case comes across almost as a distraction (not least since the villainous An Shigeng is amusingly laid back about his confusing scheme), most of the focus being on the film’s characters and their various relationships. This works well, and though the film does tend to leap around rather randomly and has an uncertain tone, at times seeming to be unsure whether to take itself seriously or head down a more comic route, it’s definitely never boring.
While their characters are for the most part quite lazily defined by their powers, the cast are all on decent and likeable form, Ronald Cheng getting most of the best lines, Anthony Wong doing well in a stately zen-master type role, and both Crystal Liu and Deng Chao raising a few unintentional laughs with their constant emo-sulking – the film is at its most comfortable and enjoyable during its lighter moments, lacking the emotional weight to hammer home any of its angst.
The film is unsurprisingly big on action, and again the two directors do an impressive job of packing in a fair amount of variety, the characters’ different powers coming into play and making for some fun set pieces revolving around people turning into monsters, telekinesis and the undead. Though there’s nothing too bruising on show, Ku Huan Chiu’s action choreography is solid, and the film has some neatly creative and crazily acrobatic scenes along the way, Chan and Chun clearly having enjoyed pushing their budget to its limits. The special effects are suitably spectacular, and though very often used gratuitously, they provide more than enough eye candy to count the film amongst the best looking Chinese blockbusters of late.
This was clearly the main aim in making “The Four”, Gordon Chan and Janet Chun aiming for slick popcorn fun rather than anything meaningful, and on that score it’s hard to fault the film. Though it ultimately makes little sense and would have benefitted from a more focused narrative, it’s a cheerful, dazzling and occasionally thrilling film which entertains throughout – probably just as well, with sequels already having been announced.
Gordon Chan, Janet Chun (director)
CAST: Chao Deng … Leng Lingqi (Coldblood)
Yifei Liu … Shong Yayu (Emotionless)
Ronald Cheng … Cui Lueshang (Life Snatcher)
Collin Chou … Tie Yourda (Iron Hands)
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … Zhuge Zhenwo
Xiu Bo Wu … An Shigeng – The God of Wealth
Taisheng Chen … Sheriff King
Yi Yan Jiang … Ji Yaohua
Anna Fang … Butterfly