HONG KONG -- Mando-pop king Jay Chou not only directed, starred in and composed the music for "Secret" but is credited for coming up with the original story. Well-crafted and well-cast, his debut is a fey high school romance with a mild dose of mystery that offers no big surprises. Nevertheless, his film became China's top theatrical release in its first week, netting $3.4 million.
Bottom Line: Chinese pop-idol Jay Chou's first directorial effort is classically composed and smoothly executed but doesn't push the envelope.
Jay (Jay Chou), a music major in senior high school, overhears an unknown tune in the piano room. Soon he is mesmerized by its player, Rain (Kwai Lun-mei), a new face on the campus. She always turns up unexpectedly and skips classes and extracurricular activities, but no one seems to care. Complications involving Jay's lovestruck classmate Sky (Alice Tzeng) cause Rain to disappear until graduation day. Only by unlocking the secret about the mysterious score can Jay reunite with Rain.
In the promo clip, Chou asked the audience not to give away the ending. However, you don't have to be Agatha Christie to figure out about 10 minutes into the film that Rain is visible only to Jay, with "hint hint" scenes like a teacher interrupting a duet between the couple to remark, "I swear I heard four hands on the keyboard!"
Not that enjoyment of the film hinges on decoding the "secret" that underpins the narrative. Chou wisely has designed the final twist and its accompanying set pieces as a vehicle to show off his musical credentials. There are many visually exhilarating scenes of him doing fancy moves on the piano. Camerawork by Taiwan's ace cinematographer Lee Ping-Bing ("After This, Our Exile," "Three Times") is pleasing, with a slight reliance on soft focus to convey a romantic mood. The soundtrack, a comfortable blend of classical and Elvis-themed retro rock, may be too lilting for Western tastes but just right for his Canto or Mandopop fan base.
Most delightful of all are his jovial bantering with Anthony Wong, who plays Chou's father again after their successful combo in "Initial D." Wong, in usual scene-stealing form, does a side-splitting tango sequence with Chou that proves their genuine screen rapport and outpaces Wong's own tango scenes in "Princess D" five years ago.
The film is shot on location in Chou's alma mater, Taiwan's Tan Jiang High School, where Chou, like his leading role/alter ego, majored in music. Despite this quasi-authentic background, the sets and locations are contrived to look like pastoral England in Beatrix Potter's books. Actors sporting navy blue blazers and duffle coats -- in marine-tropical Taiwan? -- tinkle the ivories in oak-paneled rooms, play rugby and ride bicycles along dipping slopes, lavender-lined paths and ivy-covered cottages straight out of the Cotswolds, all of which gives the leads a fusty air that makes them seem out of synch with their age and time-specific background.
In fact, the nostalgic tone, chamber music rhythm and almost prudishly chaste depiction of love curiously re-create the flavor of Nobuhiko Obayashi's Onomichi trilogy, signature works of Japanese '80s youth romance. His "Toki o kakeru shoujo" sports a similar teleporting plot device with a love triangle. And in "Sabishinbou" (aka "Miss Lonely" and "Lonelyheart"), Obayashi made the music of Chopin (the same piece is used in "Secret") pivotal to the final revelation of the invisible heroine's "secret."
East Empire International Holding Ltd. presents
a Black & White Keys production/Sil-Metropole Organization Ltd./Edko Film
Director: Jay Chou
Screenwriter: Christine Chi-Long To
Based on an original story by: Jay Chou
Producer: J.R. Yang
Executive producer: Bill Kong
Director of photography: Lee Ping-Bing
Production designer: Kuoda
Music: Terdsak Janpan, Jay Chou
Co-producer: Jimmy Huang
Costume designer: Dora Wu
Editor: Cheung Ka-fei
Jay: Jay Chou
Rain: Kwai Lun-mei
Jay's Father Chiu: Anthony Wong
Sky: Alice Tzeng
Rain's Mother: Ming-ming Su
Running time -- 102 minutes
No MPAA rating