In her four-decade acting career Kaori Momoi has always been a free-spirited stand-out, indifferent to convention. But beneath her easygoing attitude and signature drawling delivery (which used to make me wonder what she had been ingesting before the cameras started rolling) was a thorough professionalism and boundless curiosity.

Unlike most other leading actresses of her generation — she was born in Tokyo in 1951 — Momoi braved the Hollywood jungle, winning roles in such major productions as "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005) and "The Yellow Handkerchief" (2008), a remake of the 1977 Yoji Yamada road-movie classic that launched her to stardom. She also segued successfully into directing, with her 2006 debut feature "Faces of a Fig Tree" ("Ichijiku no Kao") screening at Pusan, Berlin and other festivals around the world.

Now Momoi is back with her second film as a director: "Hee" ("Hi"), which means "fire" in Japanese. Shot mostly in Momoi's home in Los Angeles, with Momoi starring as a mentally disturbed sex worker who is suspected of murder, the film had a difficult gestation, as shown in a "making of" film that screened at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival last October.