It’s just a noisy old rust-bucket cargo ship in the South China Sea, but Konrad is the proud young Polish captain of it — unexpectedly promoted to his first command by the boat’s wealthy Chinese owner. As he arrives to take charge, it feels like the first day of school. There’s something strange about it, but why question your good fortune?
He’d know why if he knew he was in a Joseph Conrad story, “The Secret Sharer,” whose Oscar-winning director Peter Fudakowski will appear here at its Saturday night screening during the Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival.
"SECRET SHARER skilfully blends mutiny, murder and romance"
Jack Laskey plays the handsome, guileless hero, who is greeted with closed arms by his motley Chinese crew from the start. They suspect him and the rich, unscrupulous Boss of planning to scuttle the ship for an insurance scam. The crew members don’t just work on the ship, they live there: It’s their home as well as livelihoods that are at stake.
Tensions quickly escalate from disrespect to disobedience to outright mutiny. Against Konrad’s orders, his sailors abandon ship for unapproved “shore leave,” leaving the young captain impotently alone and helpless, anchored in a bay. Stranded and fretting on deck that night, he spots a naked body in the water below, tangled up in the ship's rope ladder. Upon pulling it up, he finds a naked Chinese woman — a kind of gorgeous bedraggled mermaid named Li (Zhu Zhu) — and drags her on board. She just has time enough to say "Hide me!" before fainting nakedly against his naked chest.
Konrad takes her to his cabin, where she recuperates — also nakedly. He seems to travel almost as lightly as she does: For the duration, they’ve got exactly one shirt and pair of pants between them. One or the other is thus topless or bottomless all the time. Dawn comes soon after, and so does a search party from a nearby ship, trying to find a murderer. “We are looking for a woman,” says the officer. “Aren’t we all?” says Konrad, with a nervous chuckle. He’ll be keeping her presence a secret from them and from his own hostile crew (when they deign to return), secretly sharing his food — and love — with her until a very tricky escape plan can be concocted and attempted for all concerned.
A little refresher info for you here: The great novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was really Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, born in Russian-occupied Poland. Polish was his first language, French his second, but after immigrating to London he wrote — brilliantly — in English. His “thing” was psychological realism, his action often set in maritime situations. He was very reticent about sexual subjects, rarely writing about them and regarding sex in general as more often a matter of dishonor than of a healthy relationship.
I tell you this as prelude to telling you the most shocking thing about the film at hand: Conrad’s escaped murderer has been changed from male to female!
It’s almost like changing the opening of “Moby Dick” to “Call me Isabel.”
I tell you this as prelude to telling you the most shocking thing about the film at hand: Conrad’s escaped murderer has been changed from male to female! Well, OK — director-writer Fudakowski says the film is “inspired by” — not “based on” —“The Secret Sharer.” But, even so, it’s a pretty audacious switch.
He’s an audacious guy. He won an Academy Award for best foreign film of 2005 as producer of “Tsotsi,” the Athol Fugard novel of a teenage thug in Johannesburg who hijacks a car, finds a baby on the back seat, and takes it home to his slum.
The performances here are wonderful. Mr. Laskey evolves from wimpy to empowered; Ms. Zhu Zhu from suicidal to attitudinal, with a vaguely American accent that accessorizes her sense of mystery. The sullen crew members are individually and collectively excellent.
Guy Farley’s fine original score is complemented by nifty Caribbean tunes (the captain — in private — prefers Cuban music and cigars), while Mr. Fudakowski’s camera lingers dreamily on the shimmering sea and seductive body of Zhu Zhu. One beautiful shot of the lovers lying upside-down on a white bed remarkably resembles Annie Leibovitz’s iconic Rolling Stone cover of John and Yoko.
Conrad probably wouldn’t like it, but he’s not here to complain.
Graham Young, Movie Review: Secret Sharer (12A), Birmingham Mail
June 25, 2014
The film was inspired by Joseph Conrad's 1909 short story about a ship’s captain going on a journey of self-discovery.
Eight years ago, little known British film producer Peter Fudakowski helped the brilliant South African film Tsotsi to win the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Now he has written and debut directed this equally classy ocean-going thriller.
The film was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1909 short story about a ship’s captain going on a journey of self-discovery, only this time he is confronted by the unexpected presence of a woman instead of a man.
Ipswich-born actor Jack Laskey steps up from TV series Endeavour to play Konrad, a Polish captain asked to take a rusting ship from the Gulf of Thailand to Shanghai.
The mutinous Chinese crew, with whom he can converse in their native tongue, are suspicious of Konrad’s motives – fearing that he will sink them alive as part of an insurance scam ordered by The Boss (Song Bin Zhu).
One night a woman arrives on board – and because of Chinese rules, Konrad has to keep her secret.
Cloud Atlas star Zhu Zhu is mesmerising as the stowaway, Li, especially as she is cleverly filmed frequently naked.
Moreover, even three four-letter words didn’t persuade the BBFC to demand a certificate stronger than a 12A.
Quite by chance, Secret Sharer resembles a cross between two recent movies, Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Viggo Mortensen’s The Two Faces of January.
Beautifully shot, it feels as if it was made at sea like Captain Phillips and is infused with the style of the Patricia Highsmith adaptation.
While the actual ending is a trifle underwhelming, Fudakowski successfully mixes spoken English with a foreign language need for subtitles without the division between the two feeling in any way forced.
Jack Laskey is especially fresh as a leading man in such challenging territory. His career deserves to go full steam ahead.
What is it: A Polish sea captain finds himself way underwater in desire, and danger when he takes on an adrift woman in the South China Sea for this modernization of Joseph Conrad’s short 1910 story. But perhaps the classiest passenger on board this otherwise rusting ship is English composer Guy Farley (“Modigliani”), who gives beautiful, moody elegance to this unlikely, and potentially lethal romance between burned-out hero and his potentially lethal catch.
Why you should buy it?: A musician definitely worthy of discovery on this end of the pond, Farley has impressed in both thrillers (“The Flock”) and romance (“Cashback”). Now “Secret Sharer” showcases both styles with a beyond-lush approach for strings, harp, flute and piano, and later a fully turbulent orchestra. Starting off with a Polish-song based accordion waltz that captures a countryman adrift in Chinese waters, Farley creates an intriguing, sometimes soaring approach for two lost souls being brought together, mostly bonded by a gorgeous theme, whose dexterous variations nicely bring to ear the work of John Barry. Keeping a low musical profile even as the ship gets boarded, Farley uses such Oriental instruments as the shakuhachi and taiko drums, yet as musical spice to favor a mostly western approach, much like the sea captain who’s drawn to his exotic catch, finally giving way to more overt menace for the cat and mouse game between the couple and their pursuers.
"Farley creates an intriguing, sometimes soaring approach for two lost souls being brought together, mostly bonded by a gorgeous theme"
Extra Special: Far more ethnic in nature is Farley’s unused, companion score to “Tsotsi,” an Oscar-winning South African drama producer by “Secret Sharer” director Peter Fudakowski. Blending tribal rhythm with heart-rending strings, it’s hard to understand just why Farley’s score was left in the Serengeti. But this short selection is reason enough to be thankful for allowing listeners to experience this haunting score for a victim of Apartheid who kidnaps a couple’s baby, the criminal’s conscience tormented by the angelic female voice of “Cry Freedom’s” Nicola Emmanuel and anguished strings.
It’s a score whose tragedy, and self-realization keep an even emotional keel, much like “Secret Sharer.” Caldera Records show much promise with this debut release, offering a well designed and written booklet by international score specialist Gergely Hubai, as well as an ending audio interview with Farley himself, who insightfully talks about taking an atypical course for “Secret Sharer” when the score threatened to veer off into familiarly menacing Asian musical waters.
A contemporary telling of a 1909 short story by Joseph Conrad, Secret Sharer is a romantic drama set in the South China Sea. A Polish ship captain’s Chinese crew desert him, leaving him alone on the moored vessel, when he discovers a naked Chinese girl on board, confused and distressed; shortly afterwards, the authorities arrive, investigating a murder. The film marks the directorial début of Peter Fudakowski and is due for release later in 2014; unusually, the soundtrack album has been released several months before.
It is the first release on a new label devoted to film scores, Caldera Records. The music is composed by the talented Guy Farley, prolific in British cinema for 15 years now. His score has what I might call “eastern touches” but by and large is traditionally western, orchestral film music, focusing more frequently on the ship’s captain’s ethnicity than the film’s setting, which for the most part is represented very subtly. Indeed, the score’s main theme is based on a Polish folk song; its arrangement at the start of the album, for accordion and orchestra, is gorgeous.
"On a dramatic level there seems to be so much going on; but most importantly for the album listener, on a musical level, it’s just so beautiful"
“My Own Ship” has a lovely lighthearted air, continuing the album’s very strong start. ”Sudden Promotion” is more melancholy, slightly darker, with a hint of nervousness and – in film music terms – a hint of latter-day John Barry (Barry himself scored an adaptation of a Conrad short story, Amy Foster – filmed as Swept from the Sea – one of his final film scores). Farley conjures a compelling atmosphere befitting a murder mystery in the piece, following it with a slightly smokey trumpet arrangement of the main theme in “Gulf of Thailand” which leads into another lovely version for strings.
My favourite of the score’s themes is introduced at in “In a Neat Pile”, a piano line tantalisingly hinting at the melody during the first half of the piece before it is revealed in its gorgeous entirety. It bugged me for a while as I tried to work out what it reminded me of – I finally realised it is the self-contained piece “Old Family Souvenirs” in Ennio Morricone’s score for Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. I’m sure it has to be one of those weird coincidences, but it’s disarmingly similar (another possibility is that it’s another folk tune, used by both composers). In any case, it’s a wonderful piece of music, full of yearning and absolutely full of beauty. It is hinted at again in the immediately subsequent “At Sea”, a much darker piece. Tragedy appears in “The Girl”, almost mournful in tone but with a kind of exotic beauty; the tension is resolved to an extent in “Come to Life”, the piano theme returning and so too the John Barry feeling.
With that thematic material – and no shortage of beauty amongst it – established during the first half, in the second, Farley must explore much darker areas. ”What Will You Do?” must be a difficult question to answer, with the music suggesting a great deal of internal conflict. The brief “The Necklace” again has an air of an old-fashioned whodunnit before the real turning point arrives in “A Fight”, featuring the most overt burst of oriental colour up to that point (thanks to the array of percussion and a shakuhachi) and also the first action music. It feels like a pretty abrupt turn of pace and change of style to me, but I guess the composer can only do what the film needs and perhaps there just wasn’t the chance to build up to it more gradually.
The “In a Neat Pile” theme returns, for winds this time, in “Man Overboard”, perhaps the score’s standout track. On a dramatic level there seems to be so much going on; but most importantly for the album listener, on a musical level, it’s just so beautiful. There is a distinctly romantic feel in the next piece, “Few Want to Love”, in which the main theme returns again; Farley then skilfully hints at both main themes in “Horizons”, and now the atmosphere is more of a forbidden love. The second “action” piece, “Dangerous Waters”, feels more organically part of the whole, ebbing and flowing like the tide before crashing like a mighty wave later on. As the score draws to a close, there is time for further reprises of the main themes (“Short Like Yours” another gorgeous piano rendition of the “In a Neat Pile” theme, the end titles piece the Polish folk tune) which sandwich the choppy, dramatic “Small Islands” and brief but lovely “Xiamen”.
After Secret Sharer, the album features a 13-minute suite from Farley’s unused score to Tsotsi; that film was produced by this film’s director and he commissioned Farley to score it with the intention of replacing the original score that had been written for the movie, but after it was tested with the first score and played well with audiences, he wasn’t able to get his preferred score put in place. If Secret Sharer‘s ethnic moments are rather subtle then Tsotsi‘s are far more overt, with the percussion and vocals making for a lively evocation of contemporary South Africa. It’s pretty dark music in the main but dramatically compelling and highly listenable, with some moments of beauty and passion, particularly the outstanding pair of cues that conclude the suite, “Hills” and “Mother to a Child”, which are really rather moving. The album ends with another nice touch, a four-minute interview with the composer in which he talks about his experience on Secret Sharer, an impressive score full of nice touches that are revealed more and more on repeated listens.
Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s celebrated story, Peter Fudakowski’s Secret Sharer turns Conrad’s study of a young captain’s encounter with his double into an original and captivating tale of love and courage in the ruthless modern world of commercial shipping. Previous half-hour adaptations of the story have been constrained by “fidelity” to Conrad’s text, as I discovered when collecting the essays for a Cambridge volume called Conrad on Film. Fudakowski’s feature-length elaboration dares to update Conrad’s material into a visually stunning tale of cross-cultural solidarity and understanding. What will happen when an inexperienced young captain from Poland (Jack Laskey) is suddenly put in charge of a derelict freighter manned by an unruly and disrespectful Chinese crew?
"Fudakowski’s feature-length elaboration dares to update Conrad’s material into a visually stunning tale of cross-cultural solidarity and understanding"
As inTsotsi, Fudakowski’s Oscar-winning film set in Soweto, viewers may find it hard to enjoy the first half-hour or so in the company of surly low-lifes and drunkards. Fortunately the new captain can speak some Mandarin Chinese, and the scenes in which he tries to establish order are all the more powerful for being in two languages, since the crew also speaks some English. The result is a series of tersely ironic scenes with few wasted words.
The plot thickens when a naked fugitive (Zhu Zhu) turns up at the bottom of the ship’s rope-ladder, and the captain gives her sanctuary but has to keep her hidden. From the moment she arrives, the girl helps the captain to understand his crewmen and coaches him in how to respond to them and win them over. The developing love between the captain and the girl is all the more powerful for being shown with impeccable restraint and tenderness. Conrad boasted of having “no damn tricks with girls” in his story, and Fudakowski deserves full credit for avoiding the usual cinematic tricks in portraying the passion that unites the captain and the girl across boundaries of race, gender, and culture. As with Tsotsi, stereotypical villains are gradually revealed to be individual personalities with histories and motives. By means of well-crafted dialogue, striking images, and memorable music, the plot works toward the creation of a cross-cultural “family” on board the ship which one crewman tellingly describes as “Our ship. Our home.” Viewers will leave the cinema feeling more globally human for having seen this film.