Ann Hui’s debut feature is a confidently-mounted crime-mystery with elements of horror that will chill and thrill you.
Dir. Ann Hui
1979 | Hong Kong | Drama/Mystery/Thriller | 85 mins | Cantonese
M18 (passed clean) for nudity and violence
Cast: Sylvia Chang, Angie Chiu, Norman Chu
Plot: A real murder case which was complicated by the ménage à trois relationship of the victims and suspect.
Awards: Won 2 Golden Horses – Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing. Nom. for 3 Golden Horses – Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
Source: Hong Kong Film Archive
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at the Singapore Chinese Film Festival – first published 29 May 2017)
Shamefully, this is only the third Ann Hui film I’ve seen, after A Simple Life (2011), arguably the most awarded work of her career, and The Golden Era (2014), the biographical epic on famous novelist Xiao Hong with meta-filmic touches.
But what better way to continue my journey with Hong Kong cinema’s preeminent female director than to go back to her debut feature, The Secret, a very rare film now restored for the big screen.
It was screened at the 5th Singapore Chinese Film Festival. The restoration was, quite frankly, disappointing, but I’m sure it is a version that is much better than what is out there, that is if the film is even available.
Hui shows us why she would become such a great filmmaker with The Secret, a confidently-mounted crime-thriller that will keep you in suspense, and potentially chill you to the bone, what with the film’s liberal use of horror (if now seen as campy) elements. In a way, this commingling of different genre expectations and clever misdirection make it as malleable a film as it is mysterious.
The restoration of the film was made in 2015 from the inter-negative donated by Hong Kong Film Services to the Hong Kong Film Archive.
Beginning with a prologue of chanting and praying from a funeral, we are privy to the aftermath of a brutal murder of a man and a woman.
The film attempts to unravel the mystery through the perspective of Lin Jeng-ming (Sylvia Chang), who is a close friend of the deceased woman. Saying anything more will spoil this intricately-edited film that is told in a non-linear manner.
While watching The Secret, I was constantly reminded of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a remarkable film shot in Venice, about a couple recovering from grief due to the death of their child.
Roeg’s work is dramatic in nature, but has strong elements of mystery and horror. And like Hui’s film, the use of red, and in particular, a figure in red coat, is evident and frightening.
For me, it is sizably scarier in The Secret largely because of my uncomfortable reaction towards red—a colour symbolising happiness and good luck in Chinese culture—when re-appropriated as a horror visual motif.
Hui’s work is well-shot and edited, and is truly a product of its time with its ‘70s trappings. It takes a while to get ‘into’ the film, after an intentionally jumpy first act that cuts across different timelines. But when the film is in full flow, what perverse joy it is to see it all unfold in its strange, haunting beauty.