Secrets in the Hot Spring is a wacky, well-intentioned take at the haunted house genre.
Compared to the genre’s heyday in Hong Kong in the 1980s, Chinese-language horror movies have become depressingly few. When horror fare does manage to slither its way into mainland theaters, they’re typically shoddy and hackneyed productions, limited by censorship and prohibitions on supernatural content. In the last decade, the genre has seen better days in Taiwan, where folklore-inspired tales like The Tag-Along 紅衣小女孩 trilogy have done surprisingly well at the box office. This year, detective thriller Deep Evil 缉魔 was released last month, while Detention 返校, an adaptation of an acclaimed psychological horror game, is set to hit theaters on September 20.
And then there’s Secrets in the Hot Spring 切小金家的旅馆 (2018), a sillier offering from Taiwan’s new crop of horror movies. It joined Cities of Last Things 幸福城市 and Dear Ex 誰先愛上他的 on Netflix earlier this year. Its blonde-haired antihero, Chieh Hsiao-chin, is a 20-year-old slacker in his fifth year of high school. Hsiao-chin starts the first day of school with a bang, saving two classmates from a bully. The one boy, Little Princess, is dorky and effeminate, while the other, Lu Qun, is stern-faced and weird.
Over winter break, Hsiao-chin’s grandparents demand that he visit them at their hotel. Since the business was built by his late parents, Hsiao-chin feels obligated to help out, reluctantly allowing Little Princess and Lu Qun to accompany him. The three buddies hop on a train for the countryside, finding the hotel broken-down and old-fashioned. Hsiao-chin’s grandparents rule the place as cheapskates, charging guests everything from using their ancient computer to standing on bathroom scales that don’t even weigh properly. They’re also rude, and show no appreciation for the boys lending them some extra hands.
As the trio settle in, all three of the boys have encounters with a ghost that only shows its hands and feet. More unexplainable shenanigans occur, and the boys begin to wonder whether the old-fashioned inn might hold a secret or two. Hsiao-chin’s grandparents deny seeing or hearing anything strange, leading Hsiao-chin and his friends to suspect that the shady couple might be trying to cover something up. Together, the three misfits decide to investigate the hotel, looking for clues about its history and connection to the Chieh family.
Despite being a horror-comedy, the movie is very tame with its scares. I don’t recall seeing any blood or gore, and the ghosts are the usual pale and dark-haired silent types. While I usually welcome a more restrained approach, Secrets in the Hot Spring is neither creepy nor scary. Nearly every time the movie attempts to be frightening, a generic horror score blares in the background, stopping at a jump scare or a joke. At the center of all this suspense, the hotel never feels as chilling as the characters think it is. An early homage imagining the hotel as the spooky Lanruo Temple from A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂 is an embarrassing comparison, since the Chieh’s inn lacks the atmosphere and personality we associate with so many of horror’s most iconic haunted houses.
Given a later development in Secrets in the Hot Spring, one has to wonder why the filmmakers bothered to devote so much time to the movie’s horror aspect at all. While it might fail in that department, the movie does work better as a comedy. The humor is wacky and nonsensical, and Hsiao-chin and his eccentric friends share a great chemistry together. During one amusing scene, for example, the boys are terrified of checking the hotel’s rooms for a ghost. Their solution is for Hsiao-chin to take a picture of each room with his phone, while the two other guys cover his eyes.
Although lackluster in its horror dimensions, I wouldn’t write off Secrets in the Hot Spring as a failure. Thanks to its oddball cast and humor, it’s easily recommendable for anybody who enjoys a quirky comedy. So the next time you’re on Netflix on a dark, stormy night, but you’re not in the mood for serial killers, zombies, or vampires, the light-hearted Secrets in the Hot Spring might just be the appropriate solution.
Film Friday is SupChina’s film recommendation column. We’re currently featuring Chinese films available on Netflix. Have a recommendation? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org