Writer and Director: Zero Chou
Making its UK debut, Zero Chou’s Secrets of 1979 is a wistful tale of young love interrupted by political intervention and prejudiced in Taiwan. Against a backdrop of student protest focused around an anti-government magazine, Secrets of 1979 attempts an epic story of long-term affection undiminished by the barriers placed in the path of the couple or the years between them.
Moving from Malaysia, Shu-lan comes to stay with Bing-Kuan and her family. Soon the pair are inseparable, even sharing a bed but they must keep their relationship a secret. Supporting Formosa Magazine, a protest publication brings Shu-lan to the attention of the authorities and when Hsu shows an unrequited interest in her, she must sacrifice everything for her freedom.
Chou plays her film from several different angles, first adding perspective with nested flashback and memory sequences as an older Bing-Kuan reflects on her experience decades before. In the second half of the film, she shows events first from Bing-Kuan and later from Shu-lan’s perspective as the audience learns what really happened during their separation and why. It is an effective, if highly romanticised, technique that uses a pivotal letter to re-enactment the past and create layers of remembrances.
There is a heightened style to the rest of the film that borders on melodrama, even TV movie approaches, where emotions are writ large from happiness to pain and even the drama of political protest that doesn’t dig particularly deep, although there is a credible connection between the two leads that generally convinces as they love and pine in bright colours.
The scenes of demonstrations which result in police interrogation and violence are subservient to the love story, so the political theme and its deterministic effect on the plot is less convincing than the covert lovers. It means the violence is a little stagey, not helped by the repetitive piano score that works far too hard to make you feel melancholy regret in almost every scene and instead becomes a distraction.
Beyond their affection for one another, Shu-lan and Bing-Kuan have little distinct personality. Daphne Low’s Shu-lan is sweet but bold in pursuing the certain object of her affection and later in the film Low evokes the fear of state-backed consequences. Yuu Chen is, by contrast, shy in her affections and far more aware of the social consequences of openly admitting her feelings, yet how she became involved in the magazine and its demands are less clear.
As a tale of hidden love and its consequences, Secrets of 1979 is clear on the depth of affection and the dangers couples faced in this era, but there is little within the female characters beyond their relationship to truly define them as multifaceted individuals. However as a study in the restrictions imposed on same sex couples and the barriers they faced, Chou’s film has much to offer.
Secrets of 1979 was screened at the Queer East Film Festival.