The Four (2012)

Nothing matters but the facts. Without them, the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game.

Blake Edwards

Title
The Four  (2012)
Also known as
Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng  
Genre
Action,   Crime,   Fantasy,   Melodrama,   Thriller,   Tragedy,   Wuxia,   Xianxia
Written by
Gordon Chan   &    Maria Wong 
Directed by
Country of origin
China   &   Hong Kong
Running time
105 minutes

oh! … background

The Four is the first piece of a film trilogy adapted from the novel series Sì Dà Míng Bǔ (The Four Great Constables) by Woon Swee Oan which had also been previously adapted as a television series. The second piece, The Four II and the third, The Four III followed in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

I am reviewing all three films in order and each piece individually. All three films are set during the reign of Emperor Huizong in the late Northern Song Dynasty.

oh! … brief

Two rival law government agencies are simultaneously investigating a case of counterfeit coin currency that has led to unrest and instability within the government of Emperor Huizong. The first agency, “Department Six” (a well-staffed criminal investigations department in the imperial capital) is investigating the crime under the chief, Commandant Liu. The second agency, Divine Constabulary, (an unknown secret service commissioned by the Emperor himself is under-staffed by a handful of miscreants with specialised skills) under the leader Zhuge Zhengwo. (Divine Constabulary) Zhuge Zhengwo

Things come to a head during a botched undercover mission. Department Six rush to apprehend a suspect who is trying to sell a coin die stolen from the imperial mint. Unfortunately, the evidence and suspect are taken into custody Divine Constabulary. Instead of collaborating on the case, the two agencies engage in a pissing match to solve the case which only allows the mastermind behind the counterfeit currency to run circles around both agencies and agents.

oh! … talks film

This film is a must watch if you are a fan of wuxia or xianxia. The film trilogy is fantasy action based and the opening scene of the first film was mind-blowing with its fast-paced editing! It caught my attention instantly and had me hooked with the camera flitting between characters (a first-class cast) and skillfully choreographed martial arts. It was exceptional and I relished in every hair-raising and adrenaline rushing second.

However, having written that if you’re looking for depth, this might not be the film trilogy to watch.

Gordon Chan, both the writer and director for this production created his screenplay from Woon Swee On’s work. He created a solid foundation from which to build, but, he may have missed that mark this time around. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this film and the series, as a whole, but, I found the screenplay lacks. It’s hard to explain how exactly, there just seems to be missing a certain element or elements.

The story in engaging with the many plot twists, plenty of intrigue and action, and strong characters. Fused with martial arts and special effects, the story only stands on its legs because of the amazing cast who brought to life the characters and made this so entertaining.

So far so good, as the story picked up as it went on, with the requisite finale with everything and everyone coming together for that last hurrah big battle, with enough twists and double crossings that lead the door wide open for follow up films. Perhaps the writing of the characters was the best – with enough quirks, backstory and rough around the edges, they’re the only aspect of the screenplay that the audience will care about. The audience itself is more likely much younger for this film and maybe that is why the wuxia is combined with xianxia and the characters were developed to resemble Marvel superheroes with Qi-powers. It’s a good idea, as long at the supporting story lends itself and this is where things are lacking – to a degree. Other than the counterfeit currency causing economic hardship for the government, there is no real understanding why this case is so important that it requires such prestigious agency involvement.

For all Gordan Chan’s endeavours in creating plots, subplots, schemes, undercover identities and strenuous romances that vie for the audience’s attention, the case that brings everyone together is more distracting that the shenanigans going on with the leads. Gordon Chan’s saving grace is that his character development is tight and the strenuous relationships between them all become a focus and draws away from the fact that the story itself is all over the place with an odd tone and you’re never quite certain if things are serious or comedic.

It’s never boring! How can it be? With the double-crossing agents, the convoluted love triangle, the army of the undead and the magical powers of fire, ice, air, alongside telepathic insight.

Perhaps another saving grace is the phenomenal action choreography by Ku Huan Chiu. That opening scene was so fast-paced even if there were glaring errors you wouldn’t have noticed them. Ku Huan Chiu is a master in his art, he designs every step carefully and sets the pace. It’s always a pleasure to see his work so beautifully filmed and exhibited. Ku Huan Chiu also respected wuxia standards – villainous forces and heroes flying across rooftops, crazy acrobatic tricks, aggressive brawls, sword wielding armies, exhilarating foot chases, and the epic undead army in the last 20 minutes or so. While the characters were strong, I must say I believe the choreography was stronger and there was a lot of action. These two elements had their own rivalry ongoing during the film.

Even with the interwoven plots, subplots, scheming undercover agents, the investigative push to unmask the villain behind the counterfeiting becomes secondary to the fabulous heroes kicking ass, which they did so well and with such flair and mastery, if I could bow in respect to Ku Huan Chiu, I would. His art and the cast held this film together.

There were moments however where the CGI and special effects threatened Ku Huan Chiu’s mastery, and that would have been a disaster for the film. I’m not saying that the special effects and CGI were bad, they just needed a little more balance.

The special effects, in their own right, were spectacular when they weren’t bordering on being used excessively – I’m writing specifically about the telekinesis, the force-pushes, the charged-up kicks and high kicks, the psionics, the transformation from man to beast, the human pillars of ice, the undead army, the wire-fu hijinks – it was all lavish.

The CGI was particularly spectacular – the ice and fire effects and a good mix of computer versus human prowess. It does become a little hectic at times, but that added to the fantastical elements of the film and didn’t distract too much from a rather weak narrative. Perhaps it even added or made up for it?

The costumes were magnificent and blended well to the characters and the story. And the music was as dramatic as the action.

The strength of the film laid in the heroic characters – wheelchair-bound telepath (Emotionless), metal-controlling expert (Iron Hands), tracker-extraordinaire (LifeSnatcher), and transforming man-beast (Cold Blood).

Gordon Chan’s gradual character development of the leads relied heavily on the definition of the capability of the powers of each. The characters of Divine Constabulary are honourable and genial. Led by the regal zen-master Zhuge Zhengwo, the four heroes Wuqing (Emotionless), Tieshou (Iron Fist), and newcomers Zhuiming (LifeSnatcher), and Lengxue (Cold Blood) all are mothered by Jiaoniang (Aunt Posie).

Lengxue aka Cold Blood whose special ability remains hidden mostly was played by Deng Chao. He starts out with Department Six, one of their best, but is fired and then ordered to infiltrate Divine Constabulary. His backstory is interesting given his talent, raised by wolves, when angered he transforms into a super powerful man who takes on the features of a wolf – sharp canines, angry wolf-eyes and sharp talon-like hands, almost a mix of the Hulk and Wolverine (Marvel characters). Deng Chao perfectly delivers a rather sullen, strong quiet man who is fighting his internal demons, while hiding his feelings and thoughts. It was a beguiling performance because Deng Chao’s interpretation of his impassive character was faultless.

Wuqing aka Emotionless, the telepath is wheelchair-bound. She is perhaps a fascinating character because there is more to her backstory than we know in this film. Played by Liu Yifei, Emotionless comes to life in a fragile, genteel way, hiding her thoughts and feelings under a cool but angry exterior. It’s almost funny that her nickname is Emotionless because she is the one character who possesses the most emotions, controlled by boiling just beneath the surface. Liu Yifei paints a painful picture of what it is to be a telepath and having knowledge and understanding of what drives all the other characters and their flaws. Her serious facial expressions from severe frowning through deadpan stares, Liu Yifei was flawless in emoting every aspect of her character. She was mesmerising through all three films, but especially in this first one.

Tieshou aka Iron Fist was perhaps my favourite of the heroes. A gentle giant of a man with a strength that goes unappreciated for the most part. Played by Collin Chou, Tieshou wears his heart on his sleeve and is both loyal and caring towards all the members of the ‘family’. Collin Chou inhabited his character and emoted the tenderness lurking inside of this strong fighter. And his physique was alluring indeed!

Zhuiming aka Chaser has the unique ability to track and locate any human. Played by Ronald Cheng, Zhuiming fast became the strongest character, not for physical strength but for performance, delivering the almost clownish antics of his character seamlessly.  Ronald Cheng used his wide range of facial expressions to the fullest to depict his character’s charm and silliness. It was the most engaging performance. The fact that he gets to deliver most of the lines in this film is understandable, he was so good at it.

Zhuge Zhengwo, leader of Divine Constabulary was played by Anthony Wong and he did a great job as the stately master of a band of skilled misfits. Anthony Wong’s performance was the most understated in this film. The quiet, thoughtful character was displayed with skill, from stance and nuanced facial expressions. Having said that, he is the character one is most likely to overlook because of the understated performance. Almost forgettable. But, it was interesting to see the dynamic of the cool, calm, collected man and his interactions with his adversaries, there are a few of them.

The chemistry of the leads was dynamic. And then each character shares chemistry with other’s one-to-one. Emotionless and Cold Blood perhaps share the most chemistry, from hostile to longing.

oh! … sidekicks

There are many supporting characters, and many deserve mention, but time and space are limited in this review, the first of three for this film trilogy.

Perhaps the one who deserves mention above the others is Wu Xiubo who played An-Shigeng aka God of Money, the main villain (among a few) who disposes allies and uses women to infiltrate Department Six and wheedle their way into the hearts of two of Divine Constabulary agents. Wu Xiubo pulled off his interpretation of An-Shigeng and delivered an acceptable villainous man with a tone of voice, facial expression and imposing body language.

Ji Yaohua, the third wheel in the romantic chemistry, an underlying theme to this film, was played by the beautiful and talented Jiang Yiyan. Apart from sexily lazing around in a sauna pool and deviously manipulating her friendships, Ji Yaohua causes much of the angst and rivalry between the two agencies and the agents. Jiang Yiyan played her character’s sexy allure so well. I fell for her! Using her skill at creating intrigue, Jiang Yiyan used sexy smiles, loving eye-smiles and demure to bring to life the double-crossing Ji Yaohua. Even the few moments where she shows fear it’s charmingly seductive.

oh! … that’s a wrap

Not without flaws, this film, however, was so entertaining and engaging I overlooked them entirely while feasting my eyes on the all the astounding action. It was only with the writing process and contemplation following watching the film that I wrote out some of the things I noticed in passing.

However, I highly recommend this film. And the ones that follow. I typically don’t watch trilogies and avoid them when I can, but something kept catching my eye with this one. It wasn’t the title, I prefer The Four Constables personally, and it wasn’t the fantastical elements either, as I’m no fantasy genre fan.

You’ll enjoy this film if you are a martial arts wuxia or xianxia fan and appreciate when CGI, special effects and skilled martial arts choreography are captured in spectacular cinematography.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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