Beyond the Dream (Hong Kong, 2019) [Focus Hong Kong 2021]

Mental illness has always been a difficult subject to handle on the silver screen. Sadly, many films of the past have abused it by using mental illness either as a simple placeholder for a character trait (e.g. the villain), or other times as a thoughtless source of melodrama. In his most recent feature Beyond the Dream, Kiwi Chow delivers a poignant film about mental illness without resorting to the usual cliches. A romantic drama about the relationship of young man and his psychotherapist, it offers a nuanced and respectful look at the subject of mental illness while successfully working within the conventions of the romance genre.

Beyond the Dream opens with a woman collapsing in the middle of a train station after she succumbs to a schizophrenic episode. Among the mean-spirited crowd who do nothing other than pull out their cell phones and laugh at the woman’s suffering, only two people, Lok (Terrance Lau) and Yip Lam (Cecilia Choi) come to her help. Lok is a young man in his 20s who is also suffering from schizophrenia, a condition that for the time being he seems to have under control. Coincidentally, Yip lives in the same building as him, just on the floor above. Encouraged by a series of coincidences, Lok overcomes his timidity and begins a romantic relationship with Yip. However, once his condition worsens again, he begins to question the reality around him, including his newfound girlfriend.

Perhaps the most famous example of schizophrenia on film is Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), a biopic about Nobel prize winning mathematician, John Nash. Other than Russell Crowe’s stunning performance as the troubled mathematician, the film follows faithfully – almost to a fault – the conventions of a Hollywood biopic and is known for giving a slightly exaggerated portrayal of schizophrenia. Beyond the Dream suffers from some of the same drawbacks as it strongly misrepresents the symptoms of schizophrenia for dramatic effect (e.g. the nature of hallucination from schizophrenia are never as “concrete” as shown in the film). And anyone who has ever been to a therapy session would know that they are not at all like what Lok and Yip go through. Minor inaccuracies aside, the film still manages to portray the struggle and distress of schizophrenia with empathy, respect, and a touching focus on the emotional journey of the main character. After all, Beyond the Dream is not a film about schizophrenia, but a film about a person with schizophrenia trying to maintain a romantic relationship. In service of this relationship, a lot of credit must go to the two leads, Terrance Lau and Cecilia Choi, who have great chemistry together. Their skillful performances do a fantastic job in capturing the struggle that their relationship faces because of Lok’s debilitating illness. Yip’s own troubles are a bit silly by comparison, and perhaps only relevant in some of the socially conservative subcultures of Hong Kong, but it does nevertheless serve its role in the progress of the narrative.

What the film may lack in scientific accuracy, it certainly makes up for in technical excellence. Beyond the Dream is able to get inside the psyche of its characters through the use of dynamic camerawork, ethereal cinematography, and astonishingly clever editing. For instance, the furtive and distant camera angles showcase Lok’s paranoia, whereas the dreamlike cinematography symbolizes his gradual descent into fantasy. The shifts are subtle yet effective, making the audience question the reliability of the images shown on screen. Even the ending is questionable. Did it really happen, or is it another relapse of Lok’s illness? Chow opts for an uncomfortable ending, a resignation that no matter what happens, good or bad, Lok will have to live with his illness forever.

Beyond the Dream is a thoughtful and emotionally gripping romantic drama that offers a serious look at what life is like when coping with a debilitating mental illness. It is not the only – or even best – film of its kind, but it is sure to have a significant impact on its audience.

Beyond the Dream was shown as part of Focus Hong Kong.