Twenty-one years after she first essayed the genre in “The Spooky Bunch,” Hong Kong helmer Ann Hui returns to spiritual shenanigans in “Visible Secret,” to generally satisfying results. Blend of local humor and Chinese ghost-movie elements (with a soupcon of “The Sixth Sense”) takes a while to find its feet — and could alienate Hui’s more serious festival following in the West — but as a lightweight entry in her highly varied resume it’s entertaining enough. Local B.O. was solid on release last month.
Opening sequence, set 15 years prior to the main story, centers on a young girl who sees a man (Anthony Wong, cameoing) beheaded by a tram. Post credits, a volatile young party woman, June (Shu Qi), picks up Peter (Eason Chan) in a disco and back at his place they exchange bodily fluids. Next morning, she’s disappeared, and Peter and his friend, Simon (Sam Lee), discover the former’s father (James Wong) lying in the shower coated in red paint and burbling he’s possessed by a ghost.
Peter’s world suddenly starts to turn weird as he sees a silent woman (Jo Kuk) in the subway in period dress and a white-painted face. Later, on Cheung Chau island, he meets June again and has an even weirder experience with her fat friend, who ends up kissing him.
On the boat back to Hong Kong the next day, June tells him that she’s been able to see ghosts since she was young; a priest (Lau Wing) gave her an amulet as protection but its power is wearing off. As June and Peter continue their relationship, the latter finds himself becoming even more confused over the dividing line between the real and the spirit world, especially when his father hangs himself in the hospital but keeps showing up in Peter’s eyes.
Chan, who was good in the recent relationships movie “Twelve Nights,” plays it much broader here as the increasingly strung-out Peter, but is well matched by Lee’s customarily quirky characterization of his best friend. Biggest surprise, however, is Shu Qi as the central girl in the mystery: Heavily made up with dark eye-shadow and deep-purple lipstick, the Taiwan-born thesp is almost unrecognizable from her usual carefree, ditzy screen persona, and she is used by Hui almost as a style marker for the whole movie.
That style is very different from the sporty, comic goings-on of “The Spooky Bunch,” which showcased the physical and verbal shtick of its star, Josephine Siao. “Visible Secret” is more of a mood piece, with a diaphanous, floating quality to its scenes of spiritual possession that gain much from Arthur Wong’s atmospheric lensing, use of saturated colors and generally off-kilter look that blurs the line between imagination and reality.
At the end of the day, the script by ghost-movie specialist Abe Kwong doesn’t add up to a great deal, and the twist is fairly evident a few reels ahead.
Print caught in Singapore was the full-length version, with the three sequences (totaling some four minutes) of Kuk in the subway that were excised from Hong Kong showings at the request of the territory’s metro authority (as bad for its image). Despite the cuts, Kuk’s character still figured in all H.K. advertising and her name remained on prints. Pic’s Chinese title simply means “The Spirit World.”