Two troubled souls battle illusionary love in Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai’s existential romance, Beyond the Dream (幻愛). What is love when divorced from fantasy, and once you know do you have the courage face it? That’s a question asked by each of the mirrored protagonists who’ve convinced themselves they are unworthy of love while struggling to extricate themselves from past trauma and present insecurity as they find the sands of reality constantly shifting beneath their feet. 

Chow opens with a street scene, the evening crowds gently parting to find a woman in distress, Ling (Wong Lam), who eventually begins to take off all her clothes. While passersby stare and film her public breakdown, a man, Lok (Terrance Lau Chun-Him), who recognises her from a support group for sufferers of schizophrenia, comes to her rescue as does a mysterious woman who wraps her cardigan around her giving her both modesty and warmth. Helping Ling into an ambulance, Lok ends up with the mystery woman’s cardigan somehow captivated by her, touched by the way she came to Ling’s rescue when everyone else was intent on ridicule. Sometime later he is surprised to realise that the woman lives on the floor above him on his estate. Returning her cardigan he discovers her name is Yanyan (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and she lives with her violent drunk of a father (Ng Kam-Chuen). The pair become a couple and Lok starts to wonder if he should tell her about his struggles with mental health only for his symptoms to begin resurfacing. Much to his horror he realises that his relationship with Yanyan is nothing but a vivid fantasy, a figment of his illness which exists only his mind. 

Yet even fantasy is built on a grain of truth as Lok later discovers when “Yanyan” turns up at one of his support group sessions only she’s a post-grad psychology student by the name of Yip Nam who is looking for volunteers to participate in her research into erotomania in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nam hopes to find out if lack of love is a causal factor in the condition through the stories of those who become consumed by romantic delusion. Unfortunately, her project is rejected by her supervisor, Dr. Fung (Nina Paw Hee-Ching), on the grounds that she has no viable subjects. Lok would seem to be the ideal patient, were it not for the awkward fact of which Nam is still unaware that she herself is the subject of his fixation, the “real” woman who came to Ling’s rescue all those months ago. 

“Relationships are always your problem” Nam is warned, herself carrying the burden of a traumatic past which, according to her mentor Fung, has also convinced her that she doesn’t deserve love, mirroring Lok’s fantasy of Yanyan and her imprisonment at the hands of the abusive father who eventually keeps them apart. In her role as his therapist, she counsels him to “find your true love in reality”, interpreting his recurring dream as a metaphor for his desire to lose himself in the comforting fantasy of his illusionary love for Yanyan rather than take the risks concurrent with seeking happiness in the “real” world. But she herself is also seeking wilful oblivion in other kinds of illusionary romantic distraction pursued perhaps as a form of self harm or at least a means of blaming herself for something for which she has no need to apologise. 

For Lok, meanwhile, romance is still more uncertain, his sense of reality permanently impaired as he finds himself pulled between his idealised love for Yanyan and the problematic relationship with Nam while convinced that no one could ever love him because of his mental illness. “No matter who you really are, you’ll all leave me in the end” he sadly affirms, later advising Nam that “it’s time we wake up from our dreams” ironically advocating for a return to “reality” while simultaneously running from it. Continually divided in Chow’s elegant composition, forever gazing through mirrors and seeing only the reflection of unfulfilled desire, the lovers struggle to overcome their psychological barriers to move beyond the dream of love into something more concrete if perhaps no less illusionary, chasing self-acceptance in the eyes of another as they surrender to romantic destiny as its own kind of “reality”. 


Beyond the Dream screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-in on Oct. 10 as the closing night of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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