The Four (2012): the action-packed supernatural thriller movie

The Four(Vietnamese name: TU DAI DANH BO), one of many adaptations of a series of novels by Woon Swee Oan, is an infuriating picture that throws so much at us that multiple viewings are required to avoid getting lost. My first time through was confusing for quite a while, the second was clearer while the third was a lot of fun.

I’m fond of it now but it really shouldn’t take three times through to grasp a plot. Much of the problem boils down to it being a sort of Chinese X-Men which introduces us to so many characters so quickly that it’s tough to keep track of them. Some of it is, however, deliberate choice, as if the filmmakers wanted us to have to watch twice to figure it all out.

For instance, we see many of the lead characters in the opening sequence, a one shot CGI deal with a camera swooping and soaring like a bird, literally as we’re vaguely following a pigeon for surveillance purposes. They appear like featured extras, enough to stand out from the crowd, marked as people we should notice, but only for a moment before they’re gone again and the pigeon moves on.

While we see most of the characters during this opening sequence

We have to wait until the first action scene to be introduced to what they do, albeit so quickly that it’s tough to keep track. They all head over to the Drunken Moon, a rather delightful inn, to watch Jia San try to sell a fake coin cast that presumably ties to the rampant forgery going on in the town.

A debt collector known as Life Snatcher meets him, but when he realises that their wine is poisoned, all hell breaks loose. Life Snatcher battles another martial arts master, while others use wilder talents to stop Jia San escaping with use of body duplication magic. One young lady in a wheelchair hurls things around telekinetically.

Her boss uses qigong power to pull people towards him like a tractor beam. We watch this all unfold at lightning speed until they all end up outside, trapped by the constabulary known as Department Six, who descended en masse on the inn and aim to arrest everyone. Only now do we get to the point, that we have a clash of authorities going on.

Department Six are the standard police force around here and they scare most people silly because they exude brutal and militaristic power.

They’re fond of intimidation tactics and shows of force, which lead to overkill shows like what we’ve just seen. Their uniforms are dark and fetishistic, as are their headquarters which are vast, echoing and arrogant in their overt worship of power. Their commandant is Lord Liu who runs Department Six through a standard chain of command with four supreme constables.

It took me a long while to realise that these characters. Who were introduced much earlier than this, are not the Four of the title. Then again, this is an origin story, so we’re watching how the Four come together and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. At this point, one them works for Department Six. He’s Cold Blood, the master who fought Life Snatcher at the Drunken Moon. But he’s about to be publicly fired but secretly tasked by Lord Liu with infiltrating the Divine Constabulary. The secret organisation we’ve just met.

The Divine Constabulary couldn’t be any more different than Department Six if that was the basis of its funding.

I loved everything about them except the contradiction that sets them up. Apparently, they’re a secret police force, small and select. Which reports directly to the emperor through their calm, polite and humble leader. Zhuge Zhengwo, the man with the tractor beam power. Department Six haven’t heard of them, so plan to arrest them at the Drunken Moon. That until the Prince arrives and orders Zhuge to show Lord Liu his imperial badge of office.

Yet this secret police force hitherto unnoticed has their own headquarters in town with a sign on the door reading ‘Divine Constabulary’. That anomalous sign notwithstanding, it’s a glorious place. It’s utterly organic, a light and inviting home full of wood and paper, space and curves. Nobody wears uniforms and nobody barks orders. The atmosphere is one of trust and the group of people there feel far more like a family than a police force.

Having saved Life Snatcher from arrest by Department Six, Zhuge invites him to stay, to become one of them.

He wants to leave, but is suckered into staying through flattery and wine. Lots of wine. Aunt Poise from the Drunken Moon brings good wine and they drink for free. With Life Snatcher under their roof, the Divine Constabulary now have three of the Four within their organisation. The other two being Iron Hands and Emotionless. Emotionless is the more obvious; she’s the telekinetic girl in the wheelchair. Who sees into people’s thoughts and quantifies the strength of their qigong power.

To go where she can’t, she also has a bird, a pigeon called Skywings. Who led us on that merry dance through the sky to show us the key players during the opening credits. Iron Hands is their blacksmith and carpenter, who can forge glorious devices for the group, including a wonderful wheelchair/Segway for Emotionless to power with her mind. Presumably he built the secret doors and awesome steampunk library too. I want.

There are many others, but those are the major players because they’re ranked among the Four, even if that doesn’t seem to be official nomenclature.

They’re colourfully named, of course: Big Wolf, Dingdong, Guts and Bell, who in the form of Tina Xiang may just be the cutest creature I’ve ever seen. And into their ranks comes Cold Blood to shake everything up. He isn’t merely a Department Six constable undercover, he’s also some sort of moody beast man. Who was raised by wolves and he quite obviously has the hots for Emotionless.

Other key players include Ji Yaohua, the leader of the ladies hired into Department Six at the beginning of the film. That on the orders of the Prince, and Lord An Shigeng, the God of Wealth. Who she’s really working for and who’s clearly highlighted as the villain of the piece very soon into the picture. Lord An has the coolest moves yet: the ability to freeze people or burn them alive at a single touch. Stopping a martial arts master from killing you with his sword by catching it. That in your teeth is a pretty neat trick too.

INFO:

Rating: R
Genre: Action & Adventure, Art House & International
Directed By: Gordon Chan, Janet Chun
Stars: Deng Chao, Liu Yi Fei, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou and Anthony Wong
Written By: Frankie Tam, Maria Wong, Gordon Chan
In Theaters: Jun 15, 2012 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Apr 9, 2013
Runtime: 119 minutes
Studio: Enlight Pictures

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR THE FOUR

Cogerson
This one is from China and has a very complicated story that involves a government department known as the Six Panels that appoints their best officer to infiltrate a special force called the Divine Constabulary

Auteur
A Chinese-Hong Kong production, and the first installment of a planned trilogy adapted from a series of novels called The Four Great Constables, and a really sloppily made, boring excuse for a blockbuster.

HKFanatic
Ostensibly a wuxia take on the superhero genre (picture an old-school Chinese version of the X-Men), “The Four” is another disappointing misfire from director Gordon Chan, who has yet to live up to the promise of his late 90’s efforts like “Fist of Legend” and “Beast Cops.”

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