Surprise hit of the summer in East Asia, Taiwanese singer-heartthrob Jay Chou’s helming debut, “Secret,” is a slickly packaged college romancer with a mystical component that turns into barnstorming melodrama. Pic has no market in the West, but reps a genuinely impressive undertaking by the 28-year-old composer-performer, who’s surrounded himself with top behind-the-lens talent, including Taiwan d.p. Mark Lee and Hong Kong editor Cheung Ka-fai. Asiaphile events should respond.
Released in Taiwan and China in late July, and in Hong Kong in early August, the pic scored good numbers for what is basically a small, intimate production. In China, it racked up some $4.5 million, making it the top Mandarin production of the year so far there, and in Hong Kong $1.8 million, very good for a Mandarin-language pic. Theaters in Taiwan were still running it as of late September.
Chou, who provided the original story for scripter Christine To (“Fearless”), plays Yeh Hsiang-lun, a piano prodigy transferred to Tan Jiang College of Arts on the suggestion of his father (Hong Kong’s Anthony Wong). In the school’s 100-year-old piano conservatory (soon due to be demolished), he bumps into pretty Lu Hsiao-yu (Guey Lun-mei), also a piano student, whom he heard playing a mysterious melody. When he asks what it’s called, she coquettishly says it’s a secret.
Meanwhile another femme student, Ching-yi (Alice Tzeng), makes a play for Yeh. After a misunderstanding over a secret rendezvous, Lu, who’s asthmatic, suddenly disappears from college, only to briefly return, five months later, at the gradation ceremony where Yeh is the star performer in a piano concerto.
Major twist at the 65-minute mark reconfigures the main characters, with earlier scenes replayed from a different perspective, prior to an ivories-thumping finale as Yeh tries to rejoin his mysterious sweetheart.
Pic shows strong South Korean influences in its glossy look and European-flavored interiors, as well as its narrative devices and time-shifting structure. Neither of these are familiar elements in more recent Taiwan cinema.
What sets the movie apart — and also recalls ’70s Taiwan movies by helmer-composer Liu Chia-chang — is its celebration of the power and magic of music, which saturates the pic from start to finish, in the style of Hollywood ’40s grandstanders like “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Unlike in those Tinseltown classics, Chou, a considerable pianist himself, is always careful to show many of the thesps’ own fingers on the keyboards.
As an actor, Chou (“Initial D,” “Curse of the Golden Flower”) doesn’t go much further than his trademark look-at-me grin. However, Guey is very cute as Lu and vet Wong injects some comedy and maturity as Yeh’s father. Thai composer Terdsak Janpan’s moody score provides a major assist, and f/x in the latter stages are fine.