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Besides checking out the Pintilie series, I’ve been digging into the work of Hong Kong director Ann Hui this past week, on the occasion of her Simple Life playing at the River East. What’s impressed me about the three movies I’ve watched recently is how different they all are, not only in terms of genre, but of pacing, tone, and design. Hui’s a versatile—but hardly anonymous—filmmaker who prefers to weave her themes through the stories of others rather than create a subgenre her own. Directors like her used to thrive in Hollywood, though the system doesn’t seem to have room for them now (Steven Soderbergh being a notable exception). This probably has something to do with the fragmentation of U.S. movie audiences into demographics: marketing logic would insist that no action movie fan would want to see an autobiographical women’s picture, or vice versa, no matter how similar the films were in sensibility.
Yet Hui has worked in both genres—and back to back, no less (I failed to mention the other day that she made Zodiac Killers just after her personal Song of the Exile). This curiosity about different kinds of movies speaks to my own: after three Hui films, I could easily watch another three, as I have little idea of where they’d take me. Every film of hers I’ve seen has centered on a shy, passive protagonist drawn into circumstances larger than him or herself (a lovely allegory for moviegoing, now that I think about it), and each has displayed great admiration for actors, executing the most important dialogue scenes in longer takes that play like black-box theater. These qualities have a way of grounding even the silliest material in recognizable emotion.
Last night, I checked out one of Hui’s very silliest, a 2001 horror comedy called Visible Secret. It’s about a twentysomething slacker who starts dating a beautiful girl who sees ghosts, one of whom starts inhabiting the bodies of people she meets. The paranormal encounters are cartoonish and generally nonsensical, recalling the comic films of Hui’s colleague Tsui Hark. But, as in Zodiac Killers, whenever the movie stops to consider the central romance, it becomes something else entirely. Hui was in her early 50s when she made this, yet her depiction of the college-age protagonists is natural and sympathetic: one senses that these characters, as unsure of their futures as any real 20-year-olds, welcome the paranormal as something to give their lives direction. There’s also a touching subplot about the young man’s attempt to reconcile with his dead father, who visits him as a ghost—another iteration of Hui’s theme of the ever-shifting relationships between parents and children.