Four Faces of Eve
4 mian Xiawa
Hong Kong, 1996

directors: Jan Lamb Hoi-Fung ; Eric Kot Man-Fai ; Gan Kwok-Leung

screenplay: Gan Kwok-Leung ; Jan Lamb Hoi-Fung

cinematography: Christoper Doyle

editors: Wong Ming-Lam ; William Chang Suk-Ping ; Suen Lei-Kei ; Chan Kei-Hop ; Eric Kot Man-Fai

music: Mark Lui Tsung-Tak ; Tats Lau Yi-Dat ; Chan Kar-Luk ; Tam Kwok-Ching ; Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming

producer: William Chang

Sparkle Star Productions

Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu and Jan Lamb Hoi-Fung, Eric Kot Man-Fai, Karen Mok Man-Wai, Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, Wyman Wong Wai-Man, Ha Ping, Chan Fai-Hung, Lan Sai
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer

An unlikely combination of talents has created a quirky, fascinating movie. Actress Sandra Ng and writer/director Gan Kwok-Leung assembled a collection of Hong Kong's finest art film- and alternative music-makers (many in the Wong Kar-Wai orbit, including cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editors William Chang and Chan Kei-Hop, and Jan Lamb [whose new movie WKW is supervising]) to produce 4 Faces of Eve, which is both a Sandra Ng vehicle and an "alternative" movie.

4 Faces is divided into four well-defined parts, each lasting about 25 minutes. The first, Mao, stages several encounters between Ng as white-wigged prostitute and Lamb as her psychiatrist-in-training. There is a more than passing resemblance to Fallen Angels; "Mao" is built, like that film, out of narration by and dialogue between its two main characters. She thinks she's ill; she tracks him down at various aquatic sites (a pool, a riverbank, a car wash); and eventually they arrive at some sort of resolution or repose. Doyle's stylish, elegant cinematography -- precisely framed, beautifully lit, deliberately tranquil -- is abetted by a subtle, subliminally provocative score by ace producer Mark Lui.

Part two, Blowing in the Wind, is the most original and the most exasperating section. A frenetic hand-held camera records a virtually dialogue-free sequence of scenes. Eric Kot, his wife / companion Ng (who gets to sport a grossly disfigured face and hunched body) and her family (kids and grandma) chatter wordlessly, scream, and generally make themselves understood though grunts and nonsense syllables, much like characters in a Jacques Tati comedy. Tats Lau's propulsive, irritatingly insinuating keyboard score underlies and propels the action. The opening and closing scenes show a crowd who may be mainlanders, fighting to board a train to what might be the HK border. The middle consists scenes of the characters holed up in an abandoned school, as nightclub hostess Karen Mok is imprisoned and tortured by Kot, (in a sort of luridly Grand Guignol manner), then cared for by Ng. Again, some sort of repose seems to be reached, but the narratively oblique, diffuse style makes it all unclear. Grotesquely, clownishly, surreal.

Twins is the third and most impressive sequence. It is beautifully shot in chromatically-distorted, heavily pixelated grainy video. The narrative is again structured to be deliberately ambiguous. Sandra Ng seems to play ultra-rich twins, one bed-ridden, comatose; the other, her elder sister, dresses as a man, except when she cross-cross dresses as her sister to murder the latter's lover (or so she claims). The narrator speaks in what might be Thai, in an old man's voice, which is, though, presented as the voice of Ng-as-elder-sister. Total confusion is averted by Chan Kar-Luk's lyrical score (which nevertheless veers towards parody), and by Doyle's rapturously gorgeous video photography: of Ha Ping's (as the grandmother) face, in repose; of leaves against a sky, distorted and re-coloured so that they look like flowers in a dream.

Part four is the least demanding: a farce called Love Game about a TV game show that catches husbands in adulterous situations, then asks their wives to guess the mistress's identities! Ng is the apparently long-suffering wife, Chingmy Yau the mistress, and Jan Lamb the host of this expressionistically rendered satire of TV entertainment. But it is not without a dark side: there are gruesomely violent fantasies (or are they flashbacks?) of Ng's horror-studded married life. Another arresting soundtrack, sporting a Mozart serenade in drag, as hip-hop set to a pneumatic drill beat.

I've spent some time recounting details because those are what makes this film click. 4 Faces works as a pastiche of brilliant, bizarre and gorgeous moments, rather than as an integrated whole.

And the same is true of Sandra Ng's performances in all 4 sections: as "Eve", an everywoman with multiple faces. She delivers sustained, committed work, and strikes an impressive array of varied character-poses. But she may not yet be the kind of actress who can invest these quick sketches with any depth, with a substance that evokes a whole person [but see below]. Karen Mok, who definitely has that talent, is pretty much buried in a secondary role.

But this is perhaps beside the point. The word faces, like mian in the Chinese title, has the secondary meaning of surfaces: flat, with features but without depth. There is no substance underneath, holding all the characters together: "Eve" is precisely the sum of all these contradictory, separate, disconnected surfaces: their intersection, or to be more precise, the field that they generate.

It is these flatnesses, or rather these several flat personas, each present in a section of the film, that combine to make up its "Eve". And what is true for the film's central "character" is also true for the film as a whole: its irreconcilable parts float together in the same space, unresolved, yet still able to produce something resembling a complete "movie" called 4 Faces of Eve.

4 Faces evokes an alternative kind of ontology, in which anything coherent, unified, or sustained is out of reach. In our post-colonial, post-socialist, post-chronological era, personality and chronology are fragmented, displaced. Disrupt the straightforward flow of our passage-through-time, and there will be consequences. You produce a life that is obscured, scattered, multifarious, pixilated -- just like the texture of the film. The brilliant opening credit sequence illustrates how this feels in miniature. Time rolls backwards, sideways, jumps around, all at once: the titles actually proceed backwards, from acknowledgments through cast and crew for parts 4 through to 1, finishing with the producer and star. The title "song" by Anthony Wong Yiu-Ming is fragmentary: bits of recognizable pop song, electrical noise, traditional music, machinery, and conversation are broken up and reassembled seemingly randomly, while we watch a rough, looping montage of heavily distorted close-up video pixels.

A provocative, irritating, sometimes almost unwatchable, sometimes delightful experiment of a movie. Whose thesis, if any, is that: these days, the sum of the parts can add up to far more than any putative whole.

In retrospect (April 2000, after seeing her in Portland Street Blues, and especially Juliet In Love) I was wrong. Sandra Ng is indeed the kind of actress who can deliver a sophisticated, ambitious, knock-out performance that a film like this needs. It's exciting to watch her reject her former broadly comic persona, and quite deliberately and successfully reinvent herself as a serious/comic actress who is now one of the leading talents of Hong Kong cinema. Wish I had noticed this earlier. -- SK

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Shelly Kraicer
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