Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Eason Chan, Shu Qi, Sam Lee, Wayne Lai, James Wong Jim, Kara Hui, Anthony Lau Wing, Lee Fung, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Perry Chan Ping Chi, Samuel Yau Man Shing, Cheung Tat Ming
Running Time: 98 min.
By Will McGuire
Visible Secret is not so much a horror film as it is a phantasmagoria. The aim of the picture is neither to inspire fear in the viewer or create a sense of dread but rather to employ high style, dream imagery, and a strong sense of irony to capture the unreality of life in Hong Kong, and even more centrally the alienation we can feel when we allow another person whom we are attracted to to begin to know us. Like Hui’s filmography as a whole there’s a sense of intertwining political and existential anxieties which reaffirm each other and create a general, unnamable anxiety at the center of life in Hong Kong in the years which surround the 1997 handover.
In the superb Radiance Films Blu-ray release of the film critic Alexandria Heller-Nichols has a visual essay which highlights many of the film’s symbolic touchstones and, in particular, contextualizes the picture along with Made in Hong Kong as one of the great films made in the wake of the handover which address the anxiety and hopelessness of growing up in a place which is rapidly shifting its identity. I recommend that essay wholeheartedly and don’t wish to repeat it so I want to focus this review on the existential themes at play in the work that I found so striking.
Visible Secret begins with a memory, coded in blue: June (played by the excellent Shu Qi) , a very young child is picked up by a kidnapper on the docks. On her way to begin her new life she sees a man (Anthony Wong) get beheaded by a tram in a freak accident and his body begin to reflexively run about the street and adjacent alley, unaware that it is dead. As the crowds of horrified onlookers scramble in fear from the incomprehensible sight, June focuses on her apple which she has dropped and has rolled under the tram. When she goes to retrieve it, she comes eye to eye with the man’s severed head, which is emphasized by mirroring zooms into one another’s eyes that lead us into the credits.
This is June’s encounter not only with death, which in story terms endows her ability to see and communicate with ghosts, but in symbolic terms acts as her awakening to the Real. She’s been permanently opened to the fragility of life and the potential arbitrary, sudden, nature of death and can now never entirely shut her eyes to it again. It’s both an awakening, in terms of a new level of truth about life, but a vulnerability which we learn in the very next scene after the credits where she meets Peter (Eason Chan) in a nightclub while wearing an eyepatch. As she ends what looks to be a volatile and loveless relationship her soon to be ex rips off her eyepatch, the significance of which is only clear upon repeat viewings: he must know that the eyepatch is a comfort to her, and out of spite he wishes to destroy it but he probably doesn’t know why. June hasn’t revealed herself to this person and it is some combination of chance and animal instinct that has placed a new man before who is in some way capable of being similarly awakened to the Real which this film communicates to the audience by the ability to see spirits.
I don’t intend to go through this film scene-by-scene but it’s important to communicate the significance of the first two scenes to everything that follows. June’s odd behavior and direct vulnerability are misinterpreted as ease of availability and he inadvertently commits himself to believing her at a point where he likely would have said anything to get her into bed with him. Upon awakening, he’s jolted into his new existence by the appearance of his father who claims to be haunted by spirits he cannot describe and when everything has calmed and he’s finally allowed to be alone with him all he can offer him is the same apple June dropped in front of the severed head earlier. The failure of fathers to communicate with sons is a key anxiety of the piece and is a microcosm for how the past can come back to haunt us, if the previous generation fails in its responsibility to guide us.
The remainder of the film are the complications of Peter’s rude awakening and the obstacles that trauma places between him and June as they move towards understanding. Visible Secret’s central metaphor of love as a danger zone wherein we attempt to traverse the dark territory of knowing the other which is symbolized by the ordinary Hong Kong playing host to shadow world of spirits looking to possess the living is reinforced by almost all the spirits having a primal sexual trauma keeping them in the world: a girl who killed herself as a cry for attention from a spurned lover, an older woman looking to destroy a housewife for spreading rumors that she’s a homewrecker and most importantly Anthony Wong’s nameless ghost who was inadvertently decapitated by Peter’s father (the decapitation serving as a symbolic castration right down to the body producing its own “money shot” the moment before it actually dies).
Ok, that’s a lot of words. Why, in practical terms, should you go out of your way to see this film?
Gorgeous stylish photography that makes the Hong Kong of the early 2000’s come alive, great central performances, and most of all a story that isn’t tied to traditional genre constraints. This is a romantic horror-comedy which is perfect for a cozy Halloween night with your significant other. This is a film that revels in the fear of showing ourselves to someone, the humor of misinterpreting the actions and identity of that other, and the hope that we can, with patience and compassion, cross that gulf that separates us and come to truly love one another. At the end of the day, that’s the hope that makes life worth living – even if you’re a hungry ghost.
Will McGuire’s Rating: 9/10