A warm, quietly witty study of the generation gap and the paper-thin wall between two kinds of love, “Secret” is a beautifully played gem that deserves festival play and consideration by quality webs. Released in September in Japan, and rushed the following month into Hong Kong cinemas to capitalize on the local success of young actress Ryoko Hirosue in “Poppoya: Railroad Man,” it’s a modest but involving pic.
Naoko (Kayoko Kishimoto) and her 17-year-old daughter, Monami (Hirosue), are hospitalized when their bus plummets over a cliff on the way to a ski resort. At the last moment, when she’s between life and death, the 40-year-old Naoko transfers her spirit into her daughter’s body so as not to be separated from her husband, Heisuke (Kaoru Kobayashi).
Like much in the film, this extraordinary event isn’t treated as a big deal: Heisuke still has his wife around to talk to, as well as the physical presence of his daughter. Essentially, the family unit is still in place, except that “Naoko” has to go to school (in her teenage daughter’s body) and Heisuke can’t have sex with her because he’d be guilty of incest.
Elements that could have been turned into an obvious sexual farce (a la “Chances Are”) are just left there to exercise the viewer’s imagination while the picture gets on with being a quietly ironic look at what happens when the division between platonic and sexual love is dispensed with.
The joy of Hiroshi Saito’s wonderfully subtle script is the way in which it plays with but never becomes gloomily mired in the sexual angles. The husband’s frustration is sketched but not dwelt upon: When “Naoko” becomes tipsy one night and asks him to make love, he politely refuses, telling her not to use her daughter’s body for such talk. On her side, Naoko shows traces of jealousy when he’s with a pretty young teacher (Yuriko Ishida); and later he gets antsy when she’s romanced by a student (Hideaki Ito) who sees only a pretty teenager in front of him.
Script further develops its premise from the wife’s viewpoint. Naoko says she wants to make the most of her daughter’s young body, to realize goals she never had a shot at when young. To Heisuke’s initial dismay, she becomes intensely studious, and manages to get into university. The catch is that Naoko may be on borrowed time: A book on the phenom suggests that after two years her grip on her daughter’s body will weaken, and eventually come to an end.
Some 90 minutes in, when the movie seems to have exhausted all its mind-bending permutations, Monami wakes up one morning as herself, remembering nothing of being taken over by her mom’s spirit. In fact, it’s just the start of the gradual withdrawal of Naoko from her daughter’s body, leading to a mellow, moving final reel in which the characters accept their fates, richer for the experience.
Using her own voice throughout, and limning the two personalities purely through delivery and physicality, pop star Hirosue (only 18 at time of shooting) is aces in the demanding Monami/Naoko role, showing a range of emotions that surpasses her perf in “Poppoya” — with which “Secret” shares some similarities. In the only other substantial role, Kobayashi is a fine foil, underplaying the father/husband part for increasing dividends. Unfussily shot pic benefits from Ryudo Uzaki’s warm scoring at key points.