Wednesday, December 17, 2008



"Secret" was directed, produced, and soundtracked by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. He also came up with the story, and stars in the film. The American equivalent of this would be something like asking Justin Timberlake, if Justin Timberlake was a trained pianist, "What kind of movie would you like to make?" then giving him full reigns and a budget. By these means, Taiwan has birthed a Pop Star Auteur.

Chou's success at the box office is practically preordained: he's big in Japan. He's big in China. He's big in Taiwan. And, if you're a teenage girl and you happen to see the movie before your friends, you know that the ... secret ... of the movie is right in the title.

What begins as a generic but intermittently charming high school romance turns into a three-pronged twist of ghost story, time travel, and silly its-all-in-your-head cliches that can be found in most teen screens of the last decade. Usually you find one of these cliches per movie: she's actually a ghost / I can see dead people! Or, time itself is out of whack! Or, sorry, you've been dreaming the whole movie. Chou manages to cram all three into the last act, which ininitially annoyed the hell out of me, but in retrospect I think is totally appropriate. Its a pop movie made by a pop star, and this kind of mashup of plot twists is like sampling, but in film, and for teenie-boppers.

The story is familiar. Jay, who plays "Jay," is the new kid at the music school. A triangle emerges: he has a special connection with a girl named Rain, but Sky is getting in the way. Piano battles ensue. Everyone in the film seems to connect best through music, and this, I think, is a lingual thing in Taiwan. The country has a history, first with Japan then with China, of having its language changed via state mandate, and music provides an easy medium for emotion.

By far the best relationship, and the funniest/sweetest moments in the movie involve Jay and his father, Chui, played by Anthony Wong Chau-Sang. You may remember Mr. Wong from the awesome Johnnie To movie "Exiled," and here he easily turns a stern, cartoony schoolmaster into a caring but somewhat disconnected single father. He periodically pulls out his acoustic guitar in the living room and sings in his best rockabilly voice, "What's wrong? Son? You're scaring me. You can talk to me." It is touching, hilarious and somewhat offset by the gloomy teenage melodrama of Jay stomping out of the room.

When the plot twists came around in an unwarrented flurry near the end of "Secret," I closed my eyes in annoyance and defiance. The movie felt like it was ripped away from the characters and given over to goofy plot, complete with flashbacks, people that fade in and out of photographs, and a bizarre (and long) scene in which Jay uses a white-out marker to scrawl love letters back and forth with a time-travelling ghost. Don't ask. While you can easily pick out the tropes Chou tosses into the end of the movie, the means in which he got there are somewhat different. And, I would argue, the means are what count.

Taiwan's film industry is in such a state of flux right now that a kind of free-for-all is taking place. No one knows what will sell, and very few domestic films are making any money. The result of this uncertainty, though, is that a number of filmmakers are making exactly the kind of movies they want to make, with no producers or big companies to tell them "No." Auteurs are emerging. Jay Chou just happens to also be a pop star, with pop sensibilities. This includes the cliches, the boredom of your average pop song, and maybe "Secret" is a good example of a time when someone should have said "No" to those decisions. But, then, there's also the hybridity of genres, the ability to sample within the medium, and for a time the song is pretty catchy.

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