A young boy haunted by loss tries to make sense of his harsh world in Chung Mong-hong’s handsomely crafted but uneven sophomore feature, “The Fourth Portrait.” Moving on from his Cannes-preemed debut, “Parking,” Chung nicely captures mood and creates a few outstanding, emotion-grabbing scenes, but working out certain relationships proves difficult, and the humor, from TV thesp Na Dow, is disruptively broad. Still, the tyke in the center, newcomer Bi Xiao-hai, is a sympathy magnet, acknowledged by the Taipei fest’s actor award. Taipei’s other prize, for best feature, should help the pic to a decent fest life.
An engrossing opening draws auds in with its matter-of-fact depiction of Xiang (Bi) learning of his father’s death, swiftly followed by a funeral and the realization that the kid seems to be entirely alone in the world. School janitor Zhang (King Shih-chieh) catches Xiang stealing lunchboxes and coldly scolds him, but then takes the boy under his wing after sizing up the situation. Social services locates his mother, Chun-lan (Hao Lei, excellent), a “hostess” remarried to a surly fishmonger (Leon Dai) with a baby of their own.
Lost in an unwelcoming home, Xiang befriends a portly misfit (Na), who temporarily leads the kid into a life of petty crime. Luckily, the helmer drops this character fairly quickly, which will likely leave auds pondering why he’s there in the first place. Far more compelling is Xiang’s teacher Huang (the superb Terri Kwan), who shares the pic’s best scene when a physically and existentially tired Chun-lan comes in for a teacher’s conference and talks of the stigma and disillusionment of being a mainland immigrant in Taiwan.
Xiang seeks to understand his environment by sketching portraits, including one of his older brother, who disappeared some years earlier. The idea of the portraits is a lovely and telling therapy, but Xiang’s growing obsession with his lost sibling overwhelms the pic’s second half and ultimately brings little to the table. Why the brothers were separated is unclear, and the presence of Xiang’s baby half-brother seems a vaguely forgotten afterthought.
Despite these flaws, the central characters reveal depths far more haunting than the missing sibling. Hao (“Summer Palace”) miraculously makes Chun-lan sympathetic, turning the inadequate mother, tough when working and meek at home, into a complex figure both pitiable and understandable. Leon finds a tortured humanity in the misanthropic and self-loathing stepfather, while Kwan (“Prince of Tears”) has a singular screen presence that raises her stereotypical supportive-teacher role to another level.
Chung pays careful attention to lighting and colors, with cold blue-grays offset by occasional saturated richness. Landscapes, and especially magical skies, reveal a painter’s palette of tones and provide an uplift when fate appears less generous.