'The Fourth Wall' ('Di Si Mian Qiang'): Film Review

THE FOURTH WALL Still 1 - Fortissimo Films Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Fortissimo Films
Suspending disbelief is the challenge.

Avant-garde theater meets sci-fi in Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo’s tale about a Chinese couple who discover they have doubles in a parallel universe.

Trying for a sophisticated mix of genres in The Fourth Wall (Di Si Mian Qiang), co-directors Zhang Chong (on his second helming stint) and Zhang Bo (on his first) describe two mundane, wounded characters and then launch them into a parallel universe. It’s the kind of concept that is going to appeal to young audiences more than the sophisticated theater crowd to whom the title The Fourth Wall bows. After its premiere in Shanghai’s New Asian Talents section, the movie is competing in Xining’s FIRST International Film Festival.

Chong, a TV producer and screenwriter, has already directed a higher-profile pic this year called Super Me, which is also being sold by Fortissimo Films. Super Me is bigger-budget action-fantasy seemingly aimed at superhero fans, which casts some light on the thinking behind The Fourth Wall. The title refers to the theatrical convention that posits an invisible wall separating the audience from the actors onstage, but the film’s sympathies are more tied to the sci-fi thread that runs through the story.

Before reaching the zone, however, we meet Liu Lu (played by the actress of the same name, which adds another dimension of complexity.) Liu, who has acted for Jia Zhangke in Mountains May Depart and A Touch of Sin, starts off as an anti-social deer herder on a big farm in the mountains. The realism of the opening half-hour leads one to believe this is going to be the duly realistic portrait of a repressed young woman with an inferiority complex.

Deglammed to a fault, Liu Lu is seen in the manly garb of a farm hand whose job is feeding several hundred deer with grain and corn and following them around on their wanderings. On this particular day, a little deer gets lost and she becomes convinced it has slipped through a torn wire fence, all of which is wantonly symbolic. She confesses she has lost a deer to the old-timer who oversees the farm, but he tells her to chill. It’s Chinese New Year's and he gives her a bonus and a box of liquor to celebrate, all alone, in her remote outpost. Whoopee.

Her long evening watching fireworks on TV is interrupted by the arrival of the snazzy Ma Hai (Wang Ziyi of Mountain Cry), who obnoxiously bursts his way into her enclave for a little fun, but as the scene wears on he shows his true colors as a rebuffed lover. His combed-back hair and leather-jacket cool are quite a contrast to her no-makeup lumberjack look, not to mention a loud half-moon scar she sports on one cheek.

They remind themselves of their backstory: While the two were attending middle school, Liu Lu was attacked by bullies and Ma Hai dived in to help her, but in the process he cut her with a knife and gave her the scar that has made her an anti-social recluse.

Enter the fantasy element. Ma Hai confesses he knows “another” Liu Lu, whom he interacts with regularly in a parallel universe. She’s an unscarred divorcee and a disillusioned former actress whose post-middle school dreams didn’t get her very far. In this version of reality, Ma Hai killed one of her attackers back then and has spent the rest of his life fleeing the police and killing at random. He confronts her, with a gun, on an abandoned theater stage, while the original couple psychically tunes in to their drama.

This isn’t the Spider-verse or the quantum realm, but there are some nice moments. The attempts of the original Liu Lu and Ma Hai to contact their doubles sets off a series of puzzles and ambiguities. Also, the screenwriters make a valiant stab at bringing it all back to the characters’ need to overcome the psychological “fourth wall” that holds them back from facing their dreaded memories of the past and fears for the future.

The film's two DPs, Zhao Longlong and Saba Mazloum, create a variety of atmospheres, all the way from grubby farm work to mystical African mists when the action shifts to Madagascar. In spite of a camera that seems to be constantly moving, though, the actors feel blocked out on a stage and the overall effect is pretty static. Han Xiaoling's very smooth editing helps in guessing what's going on.

Production company: Beijing Impact Vision Picture
Cast: Liu Lu, Wang Ziyi
Directors: Zhang Chong, Zhang Bo   
Screenwriters: Zhang Chong, Zhang Bo, Qi Hao
Producer: Yu Fang
Directors of photography: Zhao Longlong, Saba Mazloum
Editor: Han Xiaoling
Music: Liu Tao
World sales: Fortissimo Films

90 minutes