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The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)

The Four is a 24 episode drama series made in Hong Kong, retelling the restoration of the Divine Constabulary by Emperor Hui Zong under the leadership of Zhuge Zhengwo played by Dominic Lam, and the stories of four constables: Heartless played by Raymond Lam, Iron Fist played by Kenneth Ma, Chaser played by Sammul Chan, and Cold Blood played by Ron Ng. It plays a standard game of wrapping up a mixture of detective stories in court intrigue with TV-level kung fu characterised by poor wire work, second-rate cutting, and slow motion to create a risible effect. That said, the story is actually quite interesting even if the production values are poor.

We start with Zhuge kicking his heels for ten years. The Divine Constabulary has been closed down and corruption is now rampant across the Empire. His friend, General Shu Mo-Hei played by Ram Tseung, gets him a commission to carry a sword to Price Qi. He takes his foster son, Heartless, with him. At the mansion, the three most prized swords are stolen and there are three murders. We meet Iron Fist and the man who will become known as Chaser. A rapid-fire investigation follows to show how a locked-room murder can be done, explaining why it can be necessary to move a body and showing why knowing everyone’s history can be important when it comes to solving cases. On their way to the capital to petition the Emperor to reopen the Divine Constabulary, they see an assassin kill the leader of one of the pugilist sects. A second murder by the same assassin follows in the capital. Chaser has already seen the assassin’s face and Iron Fist is on hand looking for a job. The seemingly indestructible assassin will become Cold Blood and complete the quartet.

Zhuge makes a deal with the Emperor to reopen the Constabulary if the team can find the treasure supposedly stashed away to pay for a rebellion plus a medallion that obliges the Emperor to grant one wish to the holder. In a race with the clans who also want the medallion, the solution depends in part upon understanding a riddle and being able to put a map together. However, we get into the realms of wuxia fantasy as following the movements in a kung fu manual provides written instructions. When Zhuge fulfills the promise and returns the medallion to the Emperor for destruction, he is allowed to reopen the Constabulary and informally resume the fight against the corrupt Prime Minister Cai Jing.

This is not the place to discuss the fantasy elements permeating wuxia storytelling, but in this series, there are two continuing sources of amusement. First is the militarised wheelchair and general fighting techniques used by Heartless. Second, who would have thought that 12th century China had so many beautifully paved roads across the countryside and ramps so conveniently placed to enable wheelchair access to buildings. Only when the Constables get into the stone forest is he defeated and it falls to Iron Fist and his “partner” to run around until captured by the group using fake supernatural events as a cover for embezzlement. In the end, the constabulary is able to protect the villagers, so drawing the lines of battle more clearly with corrupt officialdom.

Lau Kong and Dominic Lam pretending to enjoy the show

There’s then a particularly weak story element about a plague of zombies, the only real benefit being to encourage the formation of closer bonds between the constables and the women who are “obviously” intended to become their partners. This trend is further reinforced by the next story element which has a merchant scamming armed couriers. In fact, he’s fronting for the corrupt leadership of the clans. By coincidence, the daughter of the clan leader is the love interest for Cold Blood. The plans of the corrupt Cai Jing, played with over-the-top evil enthusiasm by Lau Kong then more clearly come into view with a faintly weird story about weapons that can effectively decapitate their victims, while paid agitators ferment yet more trouble between the clans. The return of those and similar “invincible” weapons at the end gives a pleasing structure to the whole with the origin of the weapons showing how long Cai Jing has been planning rebellion.

Now Cai Jing moves to the next phase of his slow-burning plan by staging a fight between warring clans which threatens the Emperor. This persuades the inevitably dim leader to organise a knock-out contest to unite the pugilist clans. All the major clans will enter a representative and the winner will be accepted as leader of the pugilist world. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s puppet pugilist needs to eliminate the one real threat before having to fight him. So explosives are placed on the boat bringing the righteous contender and two of the Constables to the villa where the contest is to be staged. Believing him to be dead, Ruo-Fei, his daughter, takes his place and, through blind luck, wins the first round fight. The remaining Constables decide to train the daughter to give her a chance of winning the next round. Meanwhile the survivors of the explosion are trapped on an island with what may be a dangerous animal (possibly mythological) — as you can see, no stone is left unturned for plot elements.

Kate Tsui comes good at the end

The story of events twenty years in the past comes back into focus as the man causing trouble between the clans turns out to have been involved in a death investigated by Zhuge. This leads to a reconciliation between Zhuge and Yan Hong, the daughter of the apparent suicide and now the wife of Prince Qi. In due course we have Cold Blood rehabilitated as his previous status as assassin is revealed. In the process, Cai Jing’s son is implicated in running an illegal gold mine and banished, in part because those managing the mine raped the women including Iron Fist’s sister and the woman intended for Chaser.

Zhi Yan played by Kate Tsui, skilled TCM practitioner and undercover operative for Cai Jing is becoming more active which complicates her relationship with Heartless. Heartless and Iron Hand finally identify their fathers who were set up and destroyed twenty years ago by Cai Jing so he could steal the designs for the “invincible” weapons. Iron Hand also discovers he has a previously unknown brother who is later killed by Zhi Yan.

In the end game, it all comes down to a battle between Cai Jing and the Divine Constabulary with everything turning on the loyalty of Zhi Yan. The plotting and counter-plotting is pleasing as we watch Zhuge’s plans go awry. The fighting against the invincible weapons is more than a little silly but, in the spirit of the show, the team responsible for special effects and fight choreography do their best on a limited budget.

Indeed, taking an overview, the series manages to transcend the weaknesses of the individual parts and become quite consistently entertaining. The only serious narrative weakness lies in the “love” element. With the exception of Kate Tsui’s Zhi Yan which is a well developed role, most of the other women are either decorative or not so gently mocked — Lam Ruo-Fei played by Selena Li is first presented as a spoilt child before being allowed to become something more than merely ineffective as a fighter. In an extended postscript to the battle, our brave heroes are rewarded by the Emperor but, despite their best efforts, all love is doomed by the script writers in this era of Chinese history. Hilariously, Zhuge sets off on a lechery tour of China, using his wuxia skills to seduce young maidens. The only one allowed any dignity is Zhi Yan who rides off into the sunset on a medical mission to improve the health of the poor. At the end, the Four are left holding off invading Jin troops at the pass and facing certain death — just as well there are no women around to slow them down as even Heartless jumps into the air in excitement at the thought of the expected slaughter.

There’s also a cinema version showing the Four come together. See The Four or Si Da Ming Bu (2012).

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