Beyond Our Ken (2004)

Directed by: Edmond Pang
Written by: Edmond Pang & Wong Wing Sze
Producer: Li Kuo Hsing
Starring: Gillian Chung, Tao Hong, Jim Chin, James Wong & Daniel Wu

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Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2005:
Best Original Screenplay (Edmond Pang & Wong Wing Sze)

One of the relatively few original and fresh voices of Hong Kong cinema, Edmond Pang, returns with his 3rd feature. After a sleeper hit critically with You Shoot, I Shoot and after being further showered with praise through the quirky comedy Men Suddenly In Black, Pang turns to something small. Namely a quickly shot drama/comedy where Pang more openly ditches wackiness of the past but believe it or not, Beyond Our Ken sees Pang further explore similar themes as in Men Suddenly In Black!

Ching (Gillian Chung) is dumped by her boyfriend Ken (Daniel Wu) and on top of feeling completely disillusioned, she discovers that intimate pictures of her, taken by Ken is available on the internet. She takes it upon herself to warn Ken's new girlfriend, Shing (Tao Hong) about his evil ways. The two form an alliance.

Beyond Our Ken becomes one of those problematic reviews where nothing should be divulged as Pang has written and directed a movie that has something to offer all up till the final frame. Certain themes and meanings discussed may or may not correspond to the end product but enough of this puzzling talk. Let's just say the devil imagery within the poster art for the film means something!

Many things are quickly apparent in Pang's workings as we begin to acquaint ourselves with Beyond Our Ken. Gone are the quirky camera tricks, fast pace and general silliness of his previous works and instead we see a very loose style born out of necessity. Shooting time was limited to 14 days so obviously Pang and his crew needed to quickly get this one done. It's definitely benefiting as Beyond Our Ken transforms Pang into a subtle, quiet filmmaker with focus on the small scale and he didn't have to sacrifice his desired content to boot.

Quickly also establishing the main theme of this film regarding male behaviour and manipulation reveals an unoriginal but refreshingly told and acted journey for the trio of characters. Refreshing in a sense that we don't see Hong Kong cinema such as this on a frequent basis as box-office appeal obviously is always more important than thoughtful content. It's no surprise that Beyond Our Ken did little business then but as long as filmmakers can do smaller, non-profitable projects like this and swallow their greed, then we'll have much to look forward to, especially from Pang.

The very sparsely cast allows for the most important thing to remain the focus, that of Ching and Shirley's journey to firmly crush mankind, or at least crush Ken. Pang's handling of Daniel Wu's Ken actually does borderline on dark and disturbing as it's so a textbook example of shameful male behaviour and manipulation at its worst but Pang does bring up a very thoughtful point that hatred can turn to irrational decisions very soon. Meaning that we as a viewer do feel a slight sympathy for Ken as he clearly at least is a career-driven guy and having that rug pulled out underneath him definitely does not come deserved. Or does it? I'll leave it at that and you'll know why when you've finished the film.

Throughout, Pang decides to be distanced, employing cinematography of almost the voyeuristic type. As artsy-fartsy as it sounds, it's an arguably successful choice as he makes camera decisions that responds to that. It also allows performers Gillian Chung and Tao Hong both a freedom and a greater demand as actresses. Gillian now can't hide beneath the bubbly exterior she normally is associated with when beside her chum Charlene Choi (i.e. the Canto-pop duo The Twins). She's always showed promise, having more of a mature look, and this is a project she completely fits. Low-key, ordinary and devoid of any stardom, she transforms with ease into Ching, a slightly devious character but one we're affected by as a victim. Going back to Pang again, you may be surprised that his previous films really deep down had somber auras and his view on the male world this time is a rightfully disheartening one. Not that he is the first filmmaker to vent but not all can throw it up on the screen in a compelling way.

Gillian shares great chemistry with Mainland actress Tao Hong, a woman who knows men yet falls for the ways of the Ken. A celebration of the female spirit by Edmond Pang it is then...or is it? Are you intrigued yet? Daniel Wu continues his strive to be an actual actor rather than an action star (he has a background in Wushu) and despite the supporting nature of his role, this ranks as some of Wu's best work since Purple Storm. It shows that Edmond Pang has managed to transform these stars into ordinary people smoothly, with Wu also flowing very well into it. He's also exceptionally creepy and a total a character.

Should we make it official that Edmond Pang has become a new light and hope for Hong Kong cinema? Albeit for alternative Hong Kong cinema. With now three movies under his belt, Beyond Our Ken represents him moving on from comedy or rather displaying a great ability to flow freely between moods. Sincere but simple thoughts are put on screen about male- and female behaviour, taken to refreshing and surprising heights by the performers on hand as well. Gillian Chung is definitely the most promising of the Twins duo but it's been proven that given chances in vehicles separate from each other and with the proper directorial dedication, Gillian and Charlene can develop into something beyond the Twins. Funeral March for Charlene and now Beyond Our Ken for Gillian cements that fact.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Print damage is very light and transfers registers as fairly sharp, detailed and colourful.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track mainly uses the front stage nicely for score while dialogue is also very clear. The track uses a good amount of Mandarin courtesy of Tao Hong but thankfully it's all sync sound despite the different dialects. A Mandarin 5.1 track is also included.

The English subtitles are error free and presents a well-worded representation of the dialogue. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

The special features begins with an audio commentary with co-writer/director Edmond Pang. As with their Men Suddenly In Black dvd, Mei Ah has subtitled Pang's Cantonese dialogue into English (in addition to simplified and traditional Chinese subtitles being available). However I have a gut feeling that Pang himself has been pushing for this inclusion. We non-Cantonese speakers are very thankful in either case.

Pang mostly talks characters, symbolism (some of which is rather outrageous and makes the movie pretentious but if it works for Pang...) and meaning behind actions in the film while the odd anecdote crops up about his inspiration for the film and the shoot. All well and good but Pang speaks infrequently and when I say infrequently, I mean hardly at all! I doubt he even registered 10 minutes of dialogue during the 97 minute running time, making this track extremely frustrating to get through. It's a shame because the group track on Men Suddenly In Black was lively. Mei Ah should've edited together the footage he commented on or offered a scene specific commentary.

In the Director's Statement, we can read about Pang's struggle with finding the direction for this particular story and he also discusses in a thoughtful manner to ideas and themes of the film. The essay is available with both Chinese and English text.

Video based extras follow, starting with Footage From The 17th Tokyo International Film Festival (2 minutes, 45 seconds). It shows Pang and cast in Tokyo, talking about the experience of being invited. The cast also briefly discusses their impression of the director plus we get some slight behind the scenes footage of the movie shoot. It's all too brief to be in any way substantial and it's mostly generic praise that takes up space in this featurette. Imbedded Chinese and English subtitles accompany this extra. The Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary has two segments but neither comes with any subtitles or any commentary for that matter. Only a brief scene explanation at the top of each scene sets it up in a very basic way.

The Making Of (4 minutes, 58 seconds), also with imbedded Chinese and English subtitles, follows the usual format with cast & crew interviews, movie clips and behind the scenes footage. The length doesn't allow for much but Wu and Tao Hong chimes in with some fairly compelling details about their acting challenges while Pang reveals the real life origins of the story. NG Shots (51 seconds) shows some brief blown lines and mishaps. Not amusing at all.

(Gillian Chung, Tao Hong and Edmond Pang on set)

The Secrets Behind "Beyond Our Ken" features a series of questions and answers to a few of the twists and meanings of the film. It's useful if you want to pick up on stuff you missed the non-user friendly format makes this pointless extra. Photo & Poster Gallery is an animated slideshow of 57 images, mixing production stills, behind the scenes photos and poster art used for the film. The theatrical trailer, 2 TV Spots and Mei Ah's Databank (containing the plot synopsis for those who can't read dvd covers and brief biographies for Gillian Chung, Tao Hong and Daniel Wu) rounds off a very average release of a good film.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson