There are really only two reasons I still have a Netflix account. One is the healthy amount of BBC content, for when I feel like being classy, all extended pinkies and watching Idris Elba shout at people. The other is the surprising number of effects-driven Hong Kong martial arts films, from the Detective Dee and Painted Skin series, to the much more boringly named The Four, which I watched this week on the promise of werewolves, steampunk and Anthony Wong, only one of which the film really delivered.
The film takes place during the Song Dynasty and sees two law enforcement groups — the well-funded, snappily dressed Department Six and the ragtag Divine Constabulary — as they race against time and each other to unravel a counterfeiting case which turns out to have very little to do with counterfeiting, somehow morphing into a madman’s plan to unleash a zombie army and take over China. After being drummed out of the sinister Department Six as part of a scheme to spy on them, werewolf (?) Leng finds a home in The Diving Constabulary, but his loyalties are torn between the two as he grows closer to the team’s offbeat members.
Style isn’t something The Four has a shortage of. Directors Gordon Chan and Janet Chun clearly put in a lot of effort to throw some interesting curveballs into the film’s look, and once in a while we get a truly bizarre but interesting angle or transition. The soundtrack is a similarly eclectic mix of hip hop beats, squealing guitars and traditional Chinese instruments. It all gives the impression of a film only slightly desperate to impress. Either way, there’s a lot of inventiveness and creativity on display, which won it a lot of points with me.
Things got a tad muddled in the story department, though. The movie is based off an ongoing series of fantasy/martial arts novels, and it definitely has the feeling of an adaptation of a much broader work. It’s overflowing with characters and plot points, often moving a mile a minute and cramming backstory and information down our gullets, and name me one instant where cramming of any kind is a good thing.
I lost the plot several times watching the film and scenes would go by without me having any idea who was onscreen or what was going on. This also hurt the pacing and tone a bit, as there would often be little breathing room in between important scenes, which also often have wildly different tones. The ending of the film got a bit stung by this as well. The immediate crisis got solved but aside from Leng, none of the characters really fulfilled any kind of arc. None of the central relationships were resolved per-se and for the most part, everyone is the same at the end of the film as they are at the start.
I found myself caring about very few of the characters, as well. Our main fella, Leng, is a fairly typical brooding, indecisive type who’ll occasionally announce he was raised by wolves and never follow up on it. It’s like if during a conversation I just randomly say I’m wearing underwear made of live bees and then promptly leave the room. It makes for interesting dinner conversation but in the end just confuses more than anything else.
The villains, similarly, have nothing really interesting in the way of motivation. The only one I really found myself liking was the debt-collector turned constable Life Snatcher, who joins the team admittedly ’cause they have good wine and seems to be the only person in the whole film enjoying himself. Also, I got the impression he’s secretly gay, which, if I’m not imagining things, is a surprising thing to see in a HK film.
The real draw are the fight scenes, which are full of super powers and kung-fu trickery. Almost every fight has some kind of interesting element thrown in, be it telekinetic knife-throwing or zombies made out of ash. The one gripe I’d have with them is how little of what we’re seeing is done with practical effects. Mostly what we’re seeing is just buckets of CGI being applied over actors who probably only had vague ideas of what they were supposed to be doing in the long run. Usually they pulled it off but once in a while, I could practically hear the director shouting “ok, so now you’re holding a giant firestorm at bay with a force field! Throw your arms out and make a face like you’re taking a big dump! Bigger! Nuttier!” which made me yearn for some old effects to make everything feel a bit less like a demo reel for particle effects software.
But in the end, I had fun with The Four. It may not be particularly groundbreaking or transcendent but it had a character or two I liked and some fun action scenes. If you’re looking for something entertaining and effects-laden, there’s worse things to be seen on Netflix.