by Jack Seibert
Most movie sets are made out of cheap plywood. Production designers, set painters, and cinematographers make careers out of covering up the piecemeal planks from the bottom shelf at Home Depot. That’s “movie magic”—but more magical are the slim moments when the illusion is broken, a loose nail peeks out from behind a layer of paint, suddenly turning the grandest manor into Dad’s homemade shelves down in the basement. Not out of any concerted effort to unravel the film’s immersive yarn, but because the vision eclipsed the budget or because the carpenter called in sick that day, or just because the filmmakers trusted the audience to overlook some mistakes, to accept that their hearts were in the right place.
Out of some such constraints came Lin Tuan-chiu’s The Husband’s Secret (1960). Recently restored by the Taiwan Film Institute, Lin directed the melodrama for his Taiwan-based production company, Yufeng Pictures, intent on creating a home-grown film industry to offer alternatives to Hong Kong imports. The film self-consciously evokes the histrionics of Japanese and American melodramas that would have screened in Taiwan before the war, with a fraction of the budget. Tshiu-bi (Wu Li-fen) helps her childhood best friend Le-hun (Chang Mei-yao) out of financial trouble by pawning her wedding ring and offering a place in her home. Tshiu-bi’s husband Siu-gi (Chang Pan-yang), however, is revealed to be Le-hun’s ex-lover; after a one-night stand, Le-hun has Siu-gi’s child, who is torn away by Tshiu-bi’s uncle, and the families are separated. All is orderly again.
The fable-like narrative pushes the drama to extremes: Le-hun is destitute, so she must be the total image of destitution, mistaken for a junkie by a local employer. The reveal of the past affair is climactic, so it is told via a flashback-within-a-flashback. A narrator’s voice emerges at uneven intervals, not to set the scene so much as to clarify the symbolic thrust of the story. Such intense drama makes immersive verisimilitude unnecessary, freeing the production from the usual burden of illusion. Most of the exteriors are shot handheld, with passers-by glancing at the camera in brief confusion. The actors, most of whom never acted beyond the realm of Yufeng Pictures, contort their faces through a range of static expressions that would better suit a theater stage. Even the constructed sets make little effort to hide their component parts, plywood flats displaying their support beams proudly. Much of the film’s excitement derives from seeing one-dimensional caricatures in a real—not merely realistic—environment, one full of all the bumps of working out in the world.
The Husband’s Secret is adapted from a Japanese novel, and Lin worked in Japan prior to forming Yufeng Pictures. Fittingly, the film shares a concern with women’s struggles in society that Kenji Mizoguchi made a career out of, particularly in the preceding decade. The black-and-white cinematography of the Japanese director’s final work, Street of Shame (1956), seems a particular reference for Lin, who moves similarly between night time, neon-lit streets and interiors full of multi-layered geometric frames. This decade also saw Mizoguchi begin to realign his films with an eye towards exporting them, winning big at European film festivals and teaming with Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw to reach an international audience with Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955). Mizoguchi’s style became gradually more ornate, exoticizing the customs of his characters for a foreign audience, whereas Lin uses many of the same techniques in service of focusing down to a skeletal atmosphere of simple sets and a simpler story. There is no urgency to explain the world on-screen: simply the confidence that it will be understood as familiar enough.
Large portions of the sets are unpainted, exposing the fragile bones that most productions work tirelessly to hide. When Le-hun sobs in the artificial rain, back pressed to a plywood facade, the plainness of the wood’s grain brings the audience closer to the material rather than adding distance: the production and the resulting film seem one in the same, part of an enthusiastic defiance of mass-market cinema in favor of local storytelling. A similar phenomenon explains the appeal, in our current landscape, of Clint Eastwood’s often-rickety films: a dummy baby in American Sniper (2014) and faked excitement for gelato in The 15:17 to Paris (2018) are easily forgiven when they feel like pieces of a by-the-people alternative to slick productions fed to global audiences. Yufeng Pictures ceased operations by the mid-60s, giving way to a boom in Taiwan-based film production that would lead to the Taiwanese New Wave in the 80s, producing reams of masterpieces to fill the festival circuit. The Husband’s Secret lies buried underneath, still burning strong on a pile of warped 2x4s.