When Chinese Wuxia or martial arts films are good, they can be truly great, for example see Peter Chan’s Dragon (2011). Unfortunately, when they are bad they can be really quite turgid affairs and Gordon Chan’s The Four sadly resides in this latter category. The two films are similar in respect to the focus on criminal investigation but this is where one takes the high road and the other, well you know the metaphor. Chan’s insistence on bringing the farcical side of his story to the fore as opposed to the much more interesting human drama and potential for a rather interesting crime caper is in itself a misdemeanour. Of course there is no suggestion he should be serving time but he certainly should be placed on some sort of filmmaking ASBO list.
Wen Ruian’s novel that serves as the source material for this film is not widely known on these shores but it is clear to see from the core of the film’s narrative that it may well be a very intelligent tale or at least a good detective story. The pitting of the dark militaristic Department 6 investigation unit against the small quirky Divine constabulary makes for intriguing developments in the plot as they work either at odds or together to find out who is behind the forging of counterfeit money being released into the Song Dynasty Capital of Kaifeng. Though magic and impossible kung fu are regular aspects of wuxia cinema, they completely detract from the narrative. Gordon Chan has the tendency to become unfocused during fight scenes and disturb moments of harmonious narrative development.
The disharmony between the novel’s plot and the director’s vision is alarming, proving Chan’s inadequacy at progressing the story. He is happiest when directing ridiculous looking demon men to fly around rooms, though not particularly adept at it, attested by his bewildering and incongruous fight scenes. He loves nothing more than quickly bypassing any depth in the story, even a romantic branch as young detective Coldblood (Deng Chao) and wheelchair bound telepath Emotionless (Liu Yi Fei) begin to find comfort in one another during this dark times. This strand along with the history of the two detective units and their masters is left unexplored, Chan instead getting sidetracked by shiny gimmicks, leaving the film incredibly hollow. The four supernatural detectives lack their own identity and instead come off as a cheap Chinese X-men alternative.
It may seem unfair to dump all the blame of this folly at Gordon Chan’s door but there are no other options. Though most of the characters are either anonymous or devoid of any intellect, it is difficult to fault the actors. Jesting duo Iron Hands (Collin Chou) and Lifesnatcher (Ronald Cheng) are fairly preposterous characters but both the actors are performing the roles assigned to them with gusto, besides there are moments where both Chou and Cheng even make this comedy double act quite likeable. Chan also neglects the intriguing Zhuge Zhenwo played subtly by Anthony Wong. To misuse actors and a solid core story in this way is not acceptable. The Four is saved from utter disaster by some of the smaller parts of its makeup being superior to its director’s lack of calm and focus. That being said, films like Dragon put The Four firmly in its place in the wuxia canon.
The Four is available now on DVD courtesy of Universal