28 January 2009 | ebossert
One of the Most Enjoyable Art-House Movies In Existence
The definition of "art-house" cinema is somewhat subjective, even though it's rather easily applied to specific movies. Some think that the term itself is obsolete, but it is a useful classification for those of us who watch "artsy" films as part of a greater cinematic portfolio. In any case, "Beyond Our Ken" was one of the first art-house movies that I fell in love with, and it's quite possibly my favorite with the possible exception of "Green Tea" (2003). To be honest, the only reason I rented this was because it starred one of the Twins; and if a movie stars one of the Twins, then I simply need to watch it.
Gillian Chung plays a woman who struggles with the recent breakup with her boyfriend and enlists the help of his current girlfriend to assist her. This movie is surprisingly different and subtle in its portrayal of relationships. The vision proposed is very refreshing, taking a more cynical point-of-view that throws away all of the sickly sweet fluff that dominates romantic comedies. "Beyond Our Ken" feels exceptionally different from most Hong Kong films in terms of it's relentless artistry and stylistic elements. For example, the breakup scene near the beginning has a side view of the couple as they sit in a restaurant. The placement of a hand-held camera behind a window pane is a nice choice here because it makes the viewer feel like they are actually in the restaurant, glancing at the couple. Also note that the glass pane is colored, casting the boyfriend in a blue shade perhaps a symbol of his coldness. The whole setup of this sequence smacks of outstanding film-making. Unlike some other art-house films that bathe in self-masturbatory pretentiousness, "Beyond Our Ken" observes a perfect control of creating motion picture art while avoiding meaningless patches of nothingness. Everything has a purpose.
Such is an expected result when the script is as tight and intelligent as it is here. One may not notice just how complex this film is until the final scene is played out in masterful fashion. If there's one particular type of movie that impresses me, it's one that subtly references events to one another throughout. An event or image that seems inconsequential near the beginning will be accentuated by a later event. Such tactics will fly right over your head if you're not paying attention, but that's what makes these East Asian art-house movies so entertaining and unique. Some viewers may scoff at the condensed structure of the finale, but it's really quite brilliant after you put all of the pieces together.
The acting is excellent. Tao Hong is a shamelessly underrated actress who can light up the screen with the best in the business. Check out "Life Show" (2002) if you don't believe me. The decision to cast such a fantastic actress beside a developing talent has major advantages. Gillian Chung is a pop star who broke into acting as a marketing gimmick, but that doesn't stop her from contributing a respectable, breakout performance in "Beyond Our Ken." I'm sure that Hong's presence brought Gillian's game to the next level, if not by merely bringing a Mainland style that is somewhat different from your typical Hong Kong starlet. Daniel Wu is a hit-or-miss actor, but he shines nicely here as the ex-boyfriend that every teenage girl would love to hate.
Ho-Cheung Pang is arguably the best director in Hong Kong today (with the possible exception of Johnnie To). His talent for crafting spectacular art-house films is the most obvious reason for granting him such praise. "Isabella" (2006) was a fantastic, highly intelligent drama and "Exodus" (2007) was a blackly comic piece that was enjoyable despite some pacing issues. However, "Beyond Our Ken" is his most amazing work because it succeeds at being highly entertaining on a minute-by-minute basis. Only a truly magnificent director could possibly construct the "key making mission" scene, which is amongst my most favorite sequences in any drama. The coordination of the camera movements and scoring are really great as we watch our two protagonists maneuver through a convenience store in an attempt to complete the mission. I never knew teenage girl angst could be so much fun.
As a final note, we never got stuff like this during the "Golden Age." So maybe it's time to stop parroting the "Hong Kong cinema is dead" mantra and simply enjoy gems like this. An industry cutback in film production has some advantages. "Beyond Our Ken" proves that in convincing fashion.