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KJ

KJ

The KJ of KJ, Wong Ka-Jeng.

AKA: KJ: Music and Life
Chinese: 音樂人生
Year: 2009
Director: Cheung King-Wai
Cast: Wong Ka-Jeng
The Skinny: Cheung King-Wai s KJ is a bittersweet documentary about a musical prodigy that is easily one of the most fascinating film subjects in recent years. Documentaries about young musicians in private schools may not be the most appealing subject, but this is an exception to the rule.
 
  Review
by
Kevin Ma:

The most important thing in a documentary is to have an interesting subject worth studying. In the case of Cheung King-Wai's KJ, the director has definitely found a central character that proves real-life characters can be far more compelling than fictional ones. There's no doubt that the film's titular character, Wong Ka-Jeng (or "KJ"), is a talented musician; at only 11 years old, he went with his father to the Czech Republic to play with a professional orchestra. Seven years later he's already conducting an orchestra at his prestigious private school, helping them to victory at local inter-school competitions.

But KJ doesn't care about awards, competitions, and even camaraderie with his schoolmates. Cheung's extensive interviews at two different time periods of KJ's life (ages 11 and 18) capture a young and complex mind filled with endless existential musings. Sometimes his words may not make much sense, but KJs demeanor and personality immediately capture ones attention. Whether you like Cheung's central character or not, KJ is undeniably fascinating as he arrogantly talks back to his peers, his musicians, and even his own family members.

Also the co-writer of Ann Hui's Night and Fog, Cheung wisely explores KJ's character from multiple angles, showing KJ's relationships with his teacher, his friends, his school, and his family (though his mother is curiously missing from the film). For a human of any age, let alone an 18 year-old young adult, KJ has a very complex personality. Cheung patiently unpeels KJ's personality layer by layer, and what starts off as a portrait of an arrogant musical prodigy slowly reveals itself to be the tragedy of a young man who sees music as much more than just a way to earn recognition. Even more, the film manages to communicate how frustrating it is to be the only person in the world who seems to feel as KJ does.

Instead of opting for a comparative study of how KJ evolved during the seven years that the camera stopped rolling, the film intriguingly demonstrates how KJ's pseudo-philosophical spiels are more than just the product of young rebellion. Cheung seems to buy a little too much into KJ's newsletter by devoting extended sections to his overlong spiels, but these sections are nevertheless effective in revealing KJs character and what drives him. Specifically, the scene of KJ explaining the breakdown of his relationship with his father (who seems to have a major presence in KJ's early musical life and is featured heavily in the Czech Republic footage) shows KJ shedding his overactive intellect and appearing at his most vulnerable. It's easily one of the more powerful moments of the film.

KJ is especially poignant for those who can relate to the excessive attention given to young musical talents in Hong Kong. The students' school lives seem to revolve around competitions, KJ's peers chant like cult members after a competition win, and KJ himself testifies about the pressure from his father to win. Cheung has captured an interesting character who not only thinks beyond the system, but believes that he's levels above it. As fascinating as that is to watch, I think Cheung could have said even more about the very system that KJ is trying to escape had he simply told the story of an underdog trying to survive and beat the odds. After all, everybody loves an underdog story.

But right now, KJ Wong is no underdog. In fact, he may be one of the rare successful overachievers out there, and that can make him an unlikable character for some. However, his success and ambition also make him one of the saddest outcasts to hit the screens in a long time. Unlike similar lead characters in a traditional dramatic narrative, KJ doesn't get the respect or understanding he so desperately asks for in the end. Even though Cheung's film may help people begin to understand the minds of other musical prodigies in the future, KJ will always be a portrait of a human being whose genius was exploited far too early, and knows it all too well. (Kevin Ma, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2009)

 

Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films, Ltd. (HK)
Widescreen
Original Language Track
Removable English and Chinese subtitles

   
   
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