“Beyond our Ken” is a film by Edmond Pang, director of the awkwardly titled, yet excellent “Men Suddenly in Black”, who is being touted in some circles as one of the great young hopes of the ailing Hong Kong film industry. The main reason for such claims is the fact that Pang, who scripts his own films (having also written the novel behind “Fulltime Killer”), is an incredibly creative and imaginative filmmaker who tends to make character-driven affairs rather than the bloated star vehicles which have so often plagued Hong Kong screens of late.
Of course, the fact that “Beyond Our Ken” stars one of the notorious and much derided ‘Twins’ may suggest to some that Pang has slipped into the conventional commercial mire, a suspicion furthered by the film’s somewhat uninspiring premise. Thankfully, these fears turn out to be unfounded, and “Beyond Our Ken” is in fact a skilfully made film with considerable emotion depth, realistically written characters, and a dark, cynical underbelly. Pang again shows himself to be a highly talented director, and the result has to be one of the best Hong Kong films of 2004.
The plot follows the relationship which develops between Shirley (Tao Hong, a mainland Chinese actress) and Ching (Gillian Chung, half of the infamous ‘Twins’ pop duo and star of “The Twins Effect” and its sequel), the current and ex-girlfriend, respectively, of the titular Ken (Daniel Wu, who recently won a Golden Horse award for his supporting turn in “New Police Story”). The two girls meet when Ching approaches Shirley, asking for her aid after Ken posts nude photographs of her on the Internet. Suspecting that her boyfriend may not be as nice as he seems, Shirley agrees to help and the two hatches a plot to get back the pictures. This turns out to be more complicated than the girls first thought, and a variety of obstacles soon present themselves. However, the two bond in the face of adversity, and gradually form a friendship which brings them together in the growing light of Ken’s less than angelic behaviour.
Admittedly, the plot for “Beyond Our Ken” does not sound like the most original or enticing of plots, smacking of yet another piece of pseudo-feminist dross. Fortunately, Pang takes a far more subtle approach than may be expected, avoiding the cop-out of simply demonising one side in what turns out to be a cynical, twisting film that is not so much a war of the sexes as it is a tale of bitterness and manipulation. The two girls are written with great depth, and the way their friendship builds manages to sidestep most of the cliché of similar films, never losing sight of the fact that their relationship is built upon the shakiest of foundations. Both characters clearly have their own, often dark motivations for their actions, and Pang chooses to reveal these gradually, in an intelligent fashion which allows them both to develop realistically as the plot progresses.
Even the character of Ken is fleshed out more than might have been expected, and though he is the nominal villain of the piece, at least some reasons behind his behaviour are suggested. Surprisingly, the acting is excellent, especially from Chung, who manages to eschew her usual cutesy persona and turns in an affecting performance as the spurned ex-girlfriend. Hong is similarly impressive as the more outgoing Shirley, and Wu achieves the difficult feat of arousing some understanding, if not sympathy in the viewer.
Pang directs with a fluid, naturalistic fashion, mainly with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting, in a way which recalls the works of Wong Kar Wai, though without the lush colour schemes. As a result, “Beyond Our Ken” has an unobtrusive, yet stylish feel, and Pang manages to capture a sense of the everyday, which makes the film all the more believable. Pang also brings out the best in his cast through showing them at their best and worst, shooting them in a manner which convinces the viewer they are human beings rather than cinematic stereotypes. This approach also reveals events and character traits in a manner which allows the viewer to draw some of their own conclusions rather than having all the film’s nuances blatantly signposted.
This attention to detail makes the plot of “Beyond Our Ken” all the more engaging, and serves well to make the viewer more amenable to the various twists, especially when it comes to the somewhat rushed finale. To be fair, “Beyond our Ken” is a film where not a great deal actually happens, and despite some ingenious plot twists, there are stretches where all the characters do is sit around and talk. Similarly, Pang does at times over complicate matters through the plot’s intricacy, and his avoidance of out and out comedy or drama does rely on the viewer being interested in the film as a character piece more than anything else. It is also worth mentioning that, despite the vaguely sleazy sounding subject matter, there is in fact no nudity in the film whatsoever, a fact which may disappoint some viewers.
Ho Cheung Ping (director) / Ho Cheung Ping (screenplay)
CAST: Sui-man Chim
Daniel Wu …. Ken