Have you ever imagined what your life might be like if something had gone another way? Most of us like to think of how our lives might have been better if only we’d acted differently, but what if our idealised reality turns out to be even worse? That’s partly how it is for the hero(es) of Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo’s The Fourth Wall (第四面墙, Dì Sìmiàn Qiáng) as they find themselves confounded by the intrusion of an alternate reality but ultimately forced to face the traumatic past in order to pierce a mental rather than metaphorical fourth wall and access a “truer” reality.
In the first “reality”, Liu Lu (played by the actress of the same name) is an isolated 30-something working on a rural dear farm in a mountain village. Her crisis moment comes when she realises one of the deer has escaped, she assumes through a small hole in the fencing which she later covers over with branches in case any of the others get the same idea. Lu tells her boss about the missing dear, but despite the fact he’s never lost one before in his long decades as a deer farmer, he tells her not to worry about it, even giving her a New Year bonus and telling her to have some fun over the holiday. Lu, however, ignores his advice and prepares to spend the evening alone with dumplings and the Spring Gala, but is interrupted by Ma Hai (Wang Ziyi), a childhood friend, who pushes his way into her home and refuses to leave. We get the impression that Hai is a persistent, perhaps unwanted suitor, but as he leaves irritated that his attentions have been rebuffed he stops to tell Lu that he has “a goddamn weird disease”.
Taking pity on him, she invites Hai back inside where he explains that something strange has been growing in his brain, not a tumour more like memories of different life. Images of another self have started to creep into his consciousness, and in this other reality there is also a Lu who works at a supermarket in the city where she dresses in elegant saris and dances enticingly to sell a mysterious vision of the “exotic East” while handing out pamphlets on behalf of a travel agency. This Hai is apparently a darker figure, reaching the end his road long before the promised Madagascan paradise of Lu’s sales patter. We learn that he’s apparently on the run from something connected to the teenage incident which binds the pair together and has left the first reality’s Lu with a prominent scar on her face. The other Lu meanwhile had some success making her acting dreams come true, but later married and had a child only to divorce and be left with nothing much of anything. She is just as sad and defeated as the Lu with the scar, only in a slightly different way.
“The fourth wall”, as we’re used to hearing it, refers to the invisible barrier between the show and the spectator, but it’s also even in that sense a two-way mirror between conflicting realities. We tell ourselves that the world on the other side of the fourth wall isn’t real, though the reverse might as well be true. We resent the fourth wall being broken because these streams aren’t supposed to cross, we aren’t supposed to be here and they aren’t supposed to see us even as we see them. What Lu has created in her mind is another kind of fourth wall comprised of wilful delusion, conjuring up alternate realities for herself revolving around a moment of trauma in her youth which binds her to Hai whose consciousness is also fractured by the same event.
Hai, like the fugitive deer, is a memory that Lu has been trying to keep on one side of a wall but has apparently escaped as realities bleed uncomfortably one into the other. The other Hai and Lu sit on a literal theatre stage, also the site of Lu’s last stage performance in a play called “The Fourth Wall”, and debate themselves towards one kind of endgame while the first Hai and Lu desperately investigate and try to save themselves by interrupting their darker shadows. What Lu is being asked to do is end the suspension of her disbelief and acclimatise herself to a new “reality” shorn of her protective delusions. The first Hai berated her for holing herself up in the mountains when life is about “expectation and improvement”, “concentration and contentment”, but what she’s been doing is perhaps more like cocooning in creating a safe space in her mind which has now been punctured like that mysterious hole in the fence. To move forward, she will have to shatter an interior “fourth wall” to push into a more complete “reality” and towards a promised paradise, though who can really say if one “reality” is really more “real” than another.
The Fourth Wall is represented by Fortissimo Films.