'Secret Sharer' skillfully blends mutiny, murder and romance

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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.

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.”

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.

In English and Mandarin with subtitles. Screens Saturday  only, at 7:15 p.m., in CMU’s McConomy Auditorium.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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