KJ: Music and Life
English Title: KJ: Music and Life
Country of Origin: China
Studio: CNEX Inc
Director: King Wai Cheung
Editor: King Wai Cheung
Runtime: 91 minutes
KJ: Music and Life focuses on the musical prodigy Ka Jeng Wong, at the ages of 11 and 17. The film opens with sequences documenting KJ’s trip to the Czech Republic, along with his father, where the young boy performed Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano No. 1 with a professional orchestra. Cheung begins by establishing the prodigious nature of the young KJ’s talent, the boy’s deep attachment to his teacher, Nancy Loo, and the father’s enormous investment in his son’s musical achievements. Moving back and forth in time, Cheung goes on to suggest an argument, not only about KJ’s relation to music and life, but about the impact of the competition- and exam-oriented approach to parenting and childhood that is a defining feature of Hong Kong life today.
KJ’s talent and achievements as an 11-year-old may surpass the norm to a considerable degree, but the troubled teenager’s deep rejection of an essentially competitive approach to musical practice is anything but unusual in a Hong Kong context, where young players regularly pass the highest of examinations only to reject the very instrument in question, and the musical culture with which it is associated. The 17-year-old KJ, a wayward student at Hong Kong’s prestigious Diocesan Boy’s School, explains his own refusal of the life of a concert pianist in terms of its putative irreconcilability with ‘being a human being’ and ‘leading a meaningful life.’
The brilliance of Cheung’s film has a lot to do with the way in which it ultimately reveals the deeply personal context for the troubled teen’s strident stance. In one key scene the 17-year-old expresses his contempt for his father’s failings as a human being, failings that cannot be exonerated by the successes of affluence: the father, we learn, was a successful doctor, but also a philandering husband whose deceptions produced a broken home. The scene was the first to be shot by Cheung after a shooting hiatus of several years and was prompted by the director’s casual question about the reasons for KJ’s move from an upscale apartment in Kowloon Tong to a west-facing (and therefore, as any Hong Konger will know, hot) apartment in West Kowloon. Surprised by the response to his casual question, and by its intensity and length, Cheung claims to have hesitated for up to a year about whether to include the material in the final edit. The film would without a doubt have been far less interesting and moving − and arguably also less ethical in its thrust − had Cheung decided to exclude it. The absence of the mother, striking throughout the film, takes on new meaning as a result of the scene. KJ is indeed a film about music and life, as its subtitle suggests, but it is also a film about the existential havoc that parental failings create, be they a matter of spousal betrayal or of ambitions so single-minded and strong that they ultimately become childhood-denying.
Cheung selected KJ from amongst twelve exceptionally gifted young musicians, and cites a strong sense of affinity for the boy as his reason for having done so. Indeed, Cheung sees affinity as a basic principle underwriting his practice as a documentary film-maker (personal communication). With an eight-month run in three Hong Kong cinemas, an unprecedented achievement for a Hong Kong documentary, KJ: Music and Life made Hong Kong film history. The film also distinguished itself at festivals, winning the Best Documentary, Best Editor, and Best Music awards at the 46th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, the Best Film award at the 16th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, and a Best New Director award for King Wai Cheung at the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards. KJ: Music and Life is a CNEX (Looking for Chinese2.0) production and thus part of an initiative that aims to develop and promote documentary film-making in Taiwan and Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland.
Author of this review: Mette Hjort