Director: Ann Hui
Screenplay: Abe Kwong
Starring: Eason Chan, Shu Qi, Sam Lee, James Wong, Kara Wai Ying-Hung, Yiu-Cheung Lai, Anthony Wong, Tony Liu, Cheung Tat-Ming
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Ann Hui is probably better known for her socially conscious ‘prestige’ films, aided by the countless awards she’s won over the years. As such, a horror movie, with dashes of comedy and romance like 2001’s Visible Secret wouldn’t be the first sort of film you’d attribute to the director. Hui claims making it was a deliberate attempt to revisit some of the concepts explored in her debut feature film, The Secret. She felt modern VFX could help make it easier to create the visuals she wanted this time around. Other sources though have suggested it was made in an attempt to produce a hit after her previous film, Ordinary Heroes performed poorly at the box office.
Whatever the reasons behind Hui making the film, Visible Secret ended up doing reasonably well, as hoped (it even spawned a sequel) and still managed to bag some awards, winning ‘Best Cinematography’ at the Hong Kong Film Awards and getting nominations for director, supporting actress and sound design.
Visible Secret isn’t often discussed anymore, coming as it did when the Hong Kong film industry was on the wane, but Radiance Films, who seem to pride themselves in digging out gems from the cinematic rubble, have deemed it worthy of inclusion in their relatively new but already reputable collection of releases.
Long being a lover of Hong Kong genre movies and East Asian cinema in general, the release caught my attention and I got hold of a copy so I could share my thoughts.
Peter (Eason Chan), a talentless hairdresser, meets June (Shu Qi), a nurse, at a nightclub and they start dating. June, who behaves erratically, claims to have a ‘third eye’, which allows her to see ghosts. As the pair grow closer, Peter starts seeing ghosts too.
After a holiday together, June befriends a boy in the neighbourhood. Peter and June visit the boy’s house and they discover two ghosts fighting for possession of the boy’s mother’s body (played by Kara Wai, who earned the Hong Kong Film Awards Best Supporting Actress nomination mentioned earlier).
A series of tragedies follow and Peter becomes suspicious of June’s involvement in these. He decides to break up with her, even after she warns him that a headless ghost is targeting him. However, when Peter’s best friend, Simon, tells him that Peter himself was possessed by a ghost, he regains his trust in June and they start working together to solve the mystery.
For the most part, I was totally on board with Visible Secret. Tonally, it shifts a great deal between creepy horror, deadpan humour and relatively understated romance. This is a trait often found in East Asian cinema and one I, personally, find quite refreshing. There’s an unusually mellow tone overall that acts as a blanket over everything here too, helping to dampen the shifts. This also helps lull us into a false sense of security before the more shocking scare sequences. I will say though that, overall, this isn’t an out-and-out horror movie, so those after a Halloween-friendly chiller might be left wanting more.
The film looks great too. The legendary Hong Kong DOP Arthur Wong was behind the camera and he justifies the award he won with some deliciously dark lighting setups, great use of camera movement and unusual angles. Many stylish films from that era can look dated now but Wong and Hui use a more tasteful and less overblown approach than some of their contemporaries.
The film was certainly tapping into the trend for ‘youth’ movies though, with its hot young stars. Eason Chan was famous for being one of the biggest figures in Cantopop and Shu Qi was already a well-known face in Hong Kong cinema and continues to be. The pair have good chemistry together, anchoring the otherwise quite unstable tale.
As mentioned earlier though, I was only on board with Visible Secret for the most part. The final act of the film, unfortunately, didn’t work for me. The climax is rather underwhelming and there are a couple of back-to-back twists that I thought clashed together (though maybe I was just a little confused).
Overall, however, whilst I felt it stumbled in its final scenes, I liked Visible Secret a fair amount. Blending convincing romance with ghostly chills and splashes of humour and mounting it all handsomely, Hui crafted a laid-back charmer that’s hard not to get caught up in.
Visible Secret is out now on region A&B Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. The transfer is excellent. Colours are rich and the grain looks natural. Blacks are a little heavy so detail takes a hit but this fits the style and mood nicely so is assumably as intended. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how it looks. I had no issues with the audio either.
* Please note, this is a single pressing release. Unlike Radiance’s usual limited editions, a single pressing will not be re-issued as a standard edition. This is the only pressing made and it will be deleted once sold out.
LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
– High-Definition digital transfer
– Original 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound
– New conversation between Ann Hui and NYAFF director Ken Smith who was also on set for the original shoot (2023)
– New visual essay by critic and programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (2023)
– Archival making-of documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage, (2001, 14 mins)
– New and improved English subtitle translation by Dylan Cheung
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film and its place in the horror genre by Hong Kong Horror Cinema co-editor Gary Bettinson and writer Dylan Cheung
– Single pressing of 2500 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings
Ann Hui talks about her experiences making the film in her interview. She’s enjoyably honest at times, talking about Arthur Wong’s temper, for instance. She also describes the flaws of the film she can see, looking back. It’s a relatively short but illuminating piece.
In her visual essay, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas offers some background on the film and its place in Ann Hui’s varied filmography. She also provides some analysis of the film and its themes. It’s a valuable addition to the set.
The archival ‘Making of’ is a little disappointing though, unfortunately. The majority of it consists of Hui and the principal cast members talking about ghostly experiences they’ve had. The presentation is very of-its-time too, lathered in ‘ghostly’ filters and obtrusive music. There is some behind-the-scenes material at least, which is good to see, and they talk briefly about the production process in the last minute or two.
The booklet opens with a piece by Gary Bettinson on the film and its place among Hong Kong horror movies. Then we get an essay by Dylan Cheung, where he puts the film in a political context, being released not long after the Handover. Both pieces add a lot of value to the package.
Overall then, Radiance have backed Visible Secret up with some solid extra features, making for a package that’s warmly recommended to fans of Asian genre movies.