Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi (2007)
This is a valiant first-effort film from Taiwan, written, directed by and starring Jay Chou who has recently made the transfer to Hollywood, sharing the star billing as Kato in the latest version of The Green Hornet. It’s always interesting to watch the development of a “talent”. In this case we have a musician who moves across the media to direct his own music videos and thence to this partly autobiographical film about students in a music school. For those who like details of awards, Secret or The Secret That Cannot Be Told or Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi was nominated as Best Asian Film for the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards and the music won the award for Best Original Score at the 44th Golden Horse Awards. It was voted the Outstanding Taiwanese Film for 2007. Not bad for someone’s first attempt at the actor/writer/director role.
Secret starts off as one of these puzzle films. It’s obvious that something’s not right, but we have to wait for the answer to be revealed. Essentially, this should be simple. Ye Xiang Lun, played by Jay Chou, transfers to Danjiang Secondary School, a school specialising in music where he’s to continue his study of the piano. As he makes his first entry into the block full of practice rooms, he hears someone playing the piano. This is Lu Xiaoyu or Rain as played by Kwai Lunmei. The first half of the film therefore proceeds along conventional lines. Having met girl, boy loads her on the back of his bicycle and sweeps her off her feet.
The other key figures are the boy’s father, Chiu played by Anthony Wong Chau-sang who has been the coach to the rugby team and discipline master at Danjiang Secondary School for more than twenty years. Then there’s the “other” girl, Qing Yi played by Kai-xuan Tseng who’s sure she’s the one for Ye Xiang Lun. Mention should also be made of Da Yong the caretaker.
The second half of the film is an extended “explanation”. This is a time travel story. Rain moves forward and back exactly twenty years to the minute by playing a particular piece of music on a particular piano in a particular practice room in the piano block. Her life continues in a linear fashion so, each time she plays, she moves Monday to Monday, Tuesday to Tuesday, and so on at the same time of the day at each end. Once in the future, she can only be seen by and talk with the first person she “sees” (when she opens her eyes). No-one else can see her. The slight dissonance in the first half of the film is therefore explained because she’s been like a ghost with only our hero able to interact with her. Indeed, when we see the past unwind, it appears that Rain dies during an asthma attack (and of a broken heart). Her mother has kept her bedroom as a shrine to her memory and has never really forgiven herself for failing to believe her daughter’s story of time travel. When she sees Rain’s drawing of the “boy” she claimed to meet and compares it to Ye Xiang Lun, the truth is revealed to her. The other guilty party is Chiu. As the counsellor/discipline master at Danjiang Secondary School, Rain trusted him with the story and, thinking her mentally ill, he triggered an unfortunate sequence of events leading to the girl’s premature departure from school and treatment by a psychiatrist. He’s forced to admit the truth when he reads Rain’s note to his son on the last page of the score he has been keeping for twenty years. The only other person who “knows” what’s happening is Da Yong, the caretaker who overhears the original story and is sometimes the first one to see Rain as she emerges from the piano room twenty years later. However, he has suffered an unexplained health problem in the intervening years and cannot explain anything to those around him.
So there are some good features to all this. The music is impressive. Jay Chou plays well and the original score, jointly credited to Chou and Therdsak Chanpan, creates a pleasing variety of music for both “live” performance and background. There’s no doubt of Chou’s musical abilities. His eye as a director is also sharp. There’s a pleasing flow to the way the whole film is put together, although some of the scenes are a little stagey, i.e. rather than emerging naturally from the action, some are gratuitously set up so that the lighting and camera angles can create a nice effect. I forgive the way the first half is shot. Since the point of view is intended to be Ye Xiang Lun, we are not allowed to see what must have appeared really weird behaviour to third party observers — talking to and interacting with invisible friends is behaviour that would almost certainly have been brought to the attention of his father. This is a necessary deception for the plot to develop albeit, truth be told, there are some oddities about that plot.
For example, the music score for the time-travel piano piece first seems to be left in the future, and then turns up again in the past so that she can give it to Chiu. Then we have the fact that she’s apparently tangible to whoever she first “sees” but, even though invisible to others, no-one collides with her when she moves through crowds in school corridors or on the dance floor. If we are going to have this arbitrary rule that only the first one “she” sees can see her, it should be consistent. The music teacher can hear her play, she can draw a picture of Ye Xiang Lun, she knows his name to write it on the score, she buys Ye Xiang Lun’s favourite piece of music in her time, and she sees Ye Xiang Lun kiss the other girl, so she must have a physical presence in the future time. We have her walking with her eyes closed and counting the steps from the music room to the classroom. As she does this, we should either see people walking through her, i.e. the transfer is not complete and she’s not physically present until she opens her eyes, or she must be dodging out of everyone’s way, except she can’t do this if her eyes are closed. Further, there should be an explanation of how she modifies her route to find him in different places, e.g. in a crowded dance hall. Finally, there are two real problems, one relatively minor and the other a major road block, that prevent the film from being emotionally satisfying.
The minor problem is the failure to age Chiu properly. Rain’s mother realistically adds twenty years, but Chiu looks pretty much the same apart from having more hair when he’s supposed to be younger. This leaves us with Jay Chou himself as the road block. No matter how benign a view you take of the performance as a performance, he’s just too old for this part. He does the sulky teen thing quite well except there’s no way he looks the right age. This prevents any realistic onscreen chemistry between Chou and Lunmei Kwai. She just looks too small and young against the obvious adult. So while I was prepared to close my eyes and feel for her as she first falls in love and is then overcome by jealousy when she thinks Qing Yi has stolen her “man”, he never engaged my interest.
As a final thought, we are left with the usual problems of temporal paradox. Since the time travel is exactly twenty years, he travels back after her death which, is every sense of the word, is a tragedy in the best traditions of Romeo and Juliet. That would leave her mother still grieving and. . . Well, perhaps that’s not what happens. Perhaps he’s actually killed in the demolition. There’s no reason why the music has to work for him. That way, there would be no paradox. The present would stay the same. His crushed remains would be cremated and his father would grieve his loss.
So, this is a story about what could have been. If Chou had cast someone to play the young hero against the excellent Kwai Lunmei, the ageing of Chiu was solved, and the script was tightened up, this could have been really first class. As it is, the result is merely interesting but promises well for the future.
For a review of the next film made starring Jay Chou, see Kung Fu Dunk.