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In Zodiac, Lau plays a Hong Kong native going to film school in Tokyo. He rarely attends classes, however, spending his time instead leading city tours for Cantonese-speaking tourists and taking in the nightlife. Through a series of circumstances I didn’t always understand (Hong Kong cinema is not the most cogent in the world), Lau gets on the bad side of a Chinese crime syndicate and has to protect a beautiful woman (Cherie Chung, a woman once described as Hong Kong’s Marilyn Monroe) they’ve marked for death. As an action movie, this is just fine, though hardly on par with the best of Woo, Tsui Hark, or King Hu (with whom Hui apprenticed, incidentally). But as a portrait of cultural displacement, this is evocative and sometimes very moving. It’s also interesting to see Tokyo depicted by an outsider who isn’t a Westerner: Hui’s sense of alienation is of a different and generally subtler variety than, say, Sofia Coppola’s.
I’ve seen only a handful of Hui’s films, but alienation has been a constant factor in those works. Born to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, Hui is not heir to a single cultural tradition (and to complicate matters further, she attended film school in London). Her movies convey the sense that she’s looking in on her subjects from behind some divide. That’s a good position for considering the lives of lonely people, as A Simple Life powerfully demonstrates.