Documentary / Hong Kong / 2008 / 93 minutes
KJ: Music & Life won Best Documentary, Best Editor, and Best Music at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2009 and was made on a shoestring budget of $US 13215. I was fortunate enough to be at a screening of KJ: Music & Life at the New Asia Film Festival yesterday evening, but there will be another showing at the Minoru Cultural Centre this Sunday at 11:15am.
KJ: Music & Life, directed by King-wai Cheung, traces the life of Hong Kong musical prodigy KJ, from ages 11 to 17. The film follows KJ as an 11-year-old as he travels to the Czech Republic to play with a professional orchestra. Even as a child, KJ is all bright eyes and ready embraces for his brother and father, yet still contemplates such topics as suicide, the existence of God and the meaning of life. As a 17-year-old, KJ has taken on the position of conducting the orchestra at the private school he attends. While KJ retains his arrogance and confidence in his musical abilities (he reminds one of his musicians, “To trust me is the beginning of your wisdom”), his affection for his friends and fellow musicians has been tempered by his philosophies on the meaning of life and the purpose of playing music – not for the sake of competition, but for the music itself. His enthusiasm for music is just as keen as in his childhood (watch out for a scene early in the movie where he almost bops the camera behind him as he conducts). However, his relationship with his family and especially his father is markedly more strained in his teenage years than in his childhood, and this breakdown in their relationship isn’t addressed until later on in the film. This section of the film is one of the most powerful as we cut back and forth between the teenage KJ in a moment of vulnerability eloquently describing the ways in which his father did not live up to his expectations and 11-year-old KJ embracing and horsing around with his father.
Throughout the film, KJ gives long discourses on why music is important to him and to his identity as a “human being” and what makes a life “meaningful.” In one scene, his fellow musicians in the school team celebrate a competition win by clapping and chanting the school name; the camera closes in on KJ who perfunctorily taps his forefingers together in a mock gesture and later states that “competition-based music is meaningless.”
While watching KJ on the screen, I was alternately fascinated by the words coming out of his mouth as well as somewhat irritated by his cockiness (which, to be fair, is somewhat earned by his astonishing musical talent) and fascinated by the high expectations he places on his friends, his family, and most of all, himself. But director, King-wai Cheung is skillful at editing the different periods of KJ’s life and interviews with KJ’s colleagues and family and managed to peel back the layers of someone who might have initially been perceived as a typical arrogant and isolated musical prodigy. Instead, KJ: Music & Life provides us with a fully fleshed-out portrait of not someone who’s not just a musical prodigy, but a young and complex human being.