Based on the 1909 short story by Heart of Darkness scribe Joseph Conrad, Peter Fudakowski’s debut feature film Secret Sharer (2014) is a handsomely made romantic drama which is ultimately sunk by its own clichés. Jack Laskey plays Konrad (a nod to the Polish author here) a young seaman, driven by his own ambition to take on the task of captaining a derelict old merchant ship in the South China Sea for the mysterious shady character known simply as ‘The Boss’ (Song Bin Zhu). Finding everything less than ship shape with a drunken ill-disciplined crew, a hanging garden installed in the gangway and his own doubts plaguing him, Konrad attempts to impose some authority to no real effect.
Such is our protagonist’s lack of control that Konrad wakes up one morning to find the ship at anchor and the crew spontaneously heading for some unofficial shore leave. Abandoned and ultimately rendered impotent, Konrad patiently awaits their return. However, that night a beautiful naked woman, Li (Zhu Zhu, seen most recently in Cloud Atlas), who may or may not have committed murder, swims from another ship to seek refuge. Stowing Li away from the search party and his own crew, the young man is left in a dilemma. Not only must he somehow win over his crewmates and achieve the authority he so nakedly wishes to wield, but when he is given his final orders from the Boss – to sink the ship as part of an insurance scam – Konrad must also square his ambition with his own principles.
Fudakowski and cinematographer Michal Tywoniuk make the most of their exotic maritime locations and give the film a languid dreamlike quality of post-imperial tropical torpor. Laskey glowers sympathetically, in some ways resembling that other Conrad hero Lord Jim with his callow frustrated idealism. His gradually improving relationship with the crew and especially the former captain Mong Lin (Hsia Ching-ting) who is now an alcoholic, is by far the most interesting part of the film. Aided by Li’s advice and navigational nous, Konrad manages to integrate with the crew and win over their respect, even as they continue to suspect him as an emissary of the Boss. The ship is a kind of asylum, a home from home which they’ve carved out and where they can live apart from the problems of the mainland, be they political or emotional.
Where the film falls flat (often thuddingly so) is in the relationship between Li and Konrad. Set up initially as a dangerously charged erotic thriller – she wears little and jumps on him armed with a pair of scissors – Li fails to evince much interest in Konrad, preferring a sisterly affection while helping the young man to see the error of his ways. Add to this some stunningly banal dialogue – “Go, don’t look back.” – and the interludes which should be the drive of the film begin to feel like the ballast, weighing us down. This is some times exacerbated by the dialogue slipping from Cantonese to English and back again, which hampers some of the performances. Still, Secret Sharer has its moments – the Polish-born Konrad in his cabin playing his accordion to the delight of the eavesdropping crew, but it lightens Conrad’s darkness for a more familiar romantic glossiness.