Haunted by the past, ghosts, and its own inability to keep a straight face for longer than one minute, Secrets of the Hot Spring is a fun, but messy Taiwanese horror-comedy.
I’ve talked before about the difficulties in watching and appreciating foreign comedies. In my review of the massively popular Thai comedy The Holy Man, I mentioned that it was difficult to discern what jokes were lost in translation, or which just weren’t funny. Some humour, like slapstick, is entirely universal – it’s why Mr Bean is one of the most popular British characters in the world – but unless you have the sort of time that fan subbers do to make notes to explain the cultural relevance behind each joke, chances are a bunch of your jokes are probably going to fall flat with international audiences.
This feeling was quite prominent through the majority of the horror-comedy Secrets in the Hot Spring. The movie, about a young man called Chieh Hsiao-Chin (Zhang Ting-hu) who decides to return to his family’s hotel, run by his cheapskate grandparents with his two friends Lu Chun (Lin He-Hsuan) and Princess (Hom Sing), only to find the dilapidated place is seemingly haunted, is very much hit-and-miss in its humour. But this sort of thing is entirely subjective, and figuring that the majority of the people reading this will be Westerners with a similar level of knowledge in Chinese humour, that’s the angle I’ll be approaching.
There was a lot to like here. Secrets in the Hot Spring is a good time, and was a lot of fun throughout most of its runtime. The hotel setting and the build-up of the mystery are two of its strongest suits but it’s so bogged down on trying to be silly that it misses all its chances to be more than just “pretty decent”. It spreads itself too thin meaning the jokes are so-so, and the scares are alright. Thankfully the story is entertaining enough and it has a very good sense of build-up, but nothing stands out as particularly excellent. A horror comedy needs to focus on one aspect to push (for example, Shaun of the Dead is more comedy-based, while The Babysitter really leans on its horror angle) and while Secrets does suggest early on that it’ll be about the comedy, it suffers because it’s not really all that funny.
It’s loaded with insensitive gay jokes (as one of the main characters is shown to be very stereotypical effeminate throughout), and tonnes of over the top physical comedy and almost none of it lands. From a Western point of view, it all feels a bit outdated and … well, there’s just so much of it. I did appreciate Lin He-Husan’s physical acting throughout, and he’s able to make a lot of the material work just through the sheer dedication of his performance. In fact, everyone from the three main guys to the grandparents (Mimi Chu and Law Kar-ying), to childhood friend Suzuki (Kuo Shu-yao) gives it 110%, and their work really helps to elevate the movie. But still, the whole thing could have been a lot more memorable and interesting if it had stopped trying so hard to make us laugh every two minutes.
Secrets in the Hot Spring took me a bit of time to get into, and this is almost entirely thanks to its clunky and overwrought opening scenes, which is where much of the annoying humour originates. The story has a lot of set-up to get through (though hardly any of it is as necessary as it seems to think it is), which is where many of my gripes originate. When the characters are doing their schtick in the hotel, it’s still not massively funny but it feels a lot more focused and having it be reactive to plot-important events makes it go down much smoother. Anyway, this is a lot of trash talk for a film that I did enjoy for the most part. It has a fun, chaotic energy that keeps things lively throughout, and when it buckles down it actually tells a pretty decent ghost story, with just enough lunacy to keep you guessing, a few moments of barely-earned pathos and an ending which reflects the entire experience of watching this film: it at first feels frustrating and dumb, but actually starts to grow on you. Honestly, I’d rather that than the other way around.
Verdict: Like the baths in its title, Secrets in the Hot Spring gets better the longer you stew in it. Just don’t let the gross drain hair get you.
Overall entertainment: 7/10, though probably more 6.5
Stupid bullshit: 10/10
Pond scum: Really medicinal herbs
Gay jokes: Probably too many
Missing: A good Scooby-doo corridor chase
Having 1% battery: Honestly scarier than anything a ghost could do
Secrets in the Hot Spring (2018)
Director: Lin Kuan-Hui
Writer: Lin Kuan-Hui
Zhang Ting-hu – Chieh Hsiao-Chin
Lin He-Hsuan – Lu Chun
Hom Sing – Princess
Mimi Chu – Grandma
Law Kar-ying – Grandad
Kuo Shu-yao – Suzuki