'The Secret': Film Review

The Promise Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Bravos Pictures

The Promise Still - H 2016

Who would have figured love in the afterlife would be so bland?

Director Barbara Wong teams up with superstar Leon Lai for a spit-polished, contemporary supernatural romance.

As tricky to pull off convincingly as it is satisfying when it works, the supernatural romance is a peculiar blend of mawkishness and genuine emotion that is a difficult nut to crack. Perhaps, still, most effectively realized in Jerry Zucker’s divisive Ghost (and less so in the Korean remake), the combination of ghost lore and love should work well in Asia, where ghosts are taken fare more seriously than elsewhere. So it’s surprising that Hong Kong filmmaker Barbara Wong is at the wheel for what has been billed as China’s “first supernatural thriller love story.” Slow at points, overwrought at others and frequently uneven, Wong’s The Secret is something of a missed opportunity for the subgenre. While never stooping to ridiculous spectral carnality a la Grey’s Anatomy (an image sadly burned into many minds) The Secret is a scattered film about the nature and power of love and our ability to eventually let go of loss. Popular singer-actor Leon Lai Ming’s (White Vengeance) name above the title should carry the film to moderate success in Asia-Pacific markets, however The Secret’s syrupy sentimentality and less-than-mysterious plot could keep overseas audiences at bay. It’s also simply too polished for the festival circuit, though genre events are not out of the question.

The film begins with Ling Kai-feng (Lai) moping around his million-dollar house, depressed and drinking too much expensive wine. The source of his misery, we soon find out, is the death of his beloved wife, Qiu-jie (Wang Luodan), in a climbing accident in the Himalayas — during an avalanche triggered by the deadly earthquake in Nepal. (Too soon? Too soon.) A successful music producer, Kai-feng and Qiu-jie have an adorable tyke of a son, Mu-mu (Emil Ho) who is now living with friends and neighbors, Jimmy (Taiwanese singer JJ Lin) and Yanzi (Sandrine Pinna), while Kai-feng grieves.

Before Long, Kai-feng starts seeing Qiu-jie around the house and comes to the realization that she’s a ghost, and only he can see her because he truly loves her. Jimmy can see her, too, and of course, Mu-mu can see his mother, but Yanzi cannot, because she hates Qiu-jie’s conceited, goody-two-shoes guts. Whoops. Qiu-jie soon figures out she’s dead, which turns out to be her undoing. Once she knows it, her time is limited. Nonetheless she tries to find a way to exist between the living and the dead despite being on borrowed time. Or is she?          

The Secret is one of those movies that attempts to draw viewers into grand tragedy through the casual affluence contemporary mainstream romances and thrillers trade in so frequently now. Gone are the days of the grimy underclass and in are the woes of the rich — aspirational tragedy, as it were. That being said, Wong and co-writers Silver Hau, Skipper Cheng and Daryl Du do dabble in some heavier, if familiar, ideas: parental approval, the chance to confront others on our real feelings, forgiveness and how to spend a finite amount of time with a loved one. More time spent on the dynamic between Jimmy and Qiu-jie and why he can see her (only those who love the dead can see them after all) would have been a welcome B-story but it’s never explored. Nothing in The Secret reinvents the wheel, but Wong brings the same grounded, feminine touch she brought to her breakout doc, Women’s Private Parts, and Break Up Club to The Secret, and not surprisingly those are the film’s best moments.

However, by the time the pic rolls around to the unintentionally hilarious mountaintop tragedy (complete with altitude and weather-inappropriate but high fashion “climbing” gear) at the heart of the story, a lot has been lost along the way — and astute viewers will likely have cottoned on to the twist early on. Wong, though, is less interested in Shyamalan-isms than the bond between the leads, which toggles wildly between convincingly comfortable and awkward. Lai has always been an actor prone to blandness, which has admittedly served him well time and again. He’s a great Everyman in denial (Three) or robotic loner (Fallen Angels). He’s less believable when dealing with big, histrionic emotions. As Qiu-jie, Wang is pretty and suffers elegantly, but her and Lai’s chemistry leaves something to be desired and suppresses the romantic elements. Lai and Sek Sou, as his father, on the other hand, are quite moving.

The Secret’s technical specs are above average, and come courtesy of the Hollywood crew that worked on such effects-heavy films as Hugo and 2012 and TV’s Game of Thrones, the one misstep being the aforementioned accident. Prominent composer Mark Lui's score and photography by Togo are soft and squishy and are ideal aural and visual complements to the squishy material.

Production companies: Zhenhengye Culture Communication Co., Perfect Sky Pictures Co., Media Asia
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Wang Luodan, JJ Lin, Emil Ho, Sandrine Pinna, Sek Sou
Director: Barbara Wong
Screenwriter: Barbara Wong,
Silver Hau, Skipper Cheng, Daryl Du
Producer: Andy Chen, Barbara Wong
Director of photography: Togo
Production designer: Tung Kang Lee
Costume designer: Singing Lin
Editor: Curran Pang
Music: Mark Lui
World sales: Zhenhengye Culture Communication

In Mandarin

Not rated, 107 minutes