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Acquisition and Restoration of The Secret

The Secret (1979), one of the classics of Hong Kong New Wave, is Ann Hui's directorial debut. Starring Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, Teresa Chiu Nga-chi and Norman Tsui Siu-keung, The Secret is based on a true murder case at Lung Fu Shan in 1970. The film is a hybrid of suspense and realism. Employing a non-linear narrative structure, the story is unfolded in a series of flashbacks, creating an eerie atmosphere, which showcases the creativity of the scriptwriter Joyce Chan and the director Ann Hui.

 A film still of <em>The Secret</em> (1979)
A film still of The Secret (1979)

For many years, the few remaining copies of the film were of very poor visual quality. Many of the night scenes key to the film were so murky that audiences could only guess what was happening in the dark, much less experience or appreciate the eerie atmosphere created by the film's stark cinematography. This shortcoming is caused by multiple duplications of the film materials, resulting in a high image contrast.

 A night scene before (left) and after restoration (right)
A night scene before (left) and after restoration (right)

Hong Kong Film Archive is much grateful to Hong Kong Film Services for their generous donation of the film's internegatives, a set of nine reels of 35mm cellulose acetate colour duplicate negatives, which are 88 minutes in duration. With the permission of Hong Kong Film services, these internegatives which are of much higher image quality became the key materials for our restoration project. Our aim was to reduce or rectify the distortions of image caused by film deterioration, restoring the film back to its original look at the time of its initial release, while any inherited defects would be kept untouched.

INSPECTION OF SOURCE MATERIALS

As the internegatives' opening and end credits as well as the soundtrack are missing, some other source materials had to be prepared before the restoration process could begin. Apart from a VHS tape copy of the film which became the main source for sound, a copy of the film on Betacam SP tape also filled in the missing shots in the opening and closing credits.

Our conservation staff first checked the negatives thoroughly, followed by cleaning and repairing them, so as to enhance the quality of the image from digitisation. The negatives have partly deteriorated and been damaged with problems of image fading, flickering and jittering. Besides these are stains and spots on the films due to mould growth or scratching. Fortunately, the overall condition of the films is not that bad, and still suitable for restoration. Our conservation staff digitised the audio track from the VHS tape to WAV files, which along with the scanned 2K DPX files of the negatives, were handed over to our project partner in Hungary, Magyar Nemzeti Filmalap, for digital restoration and mastering.

DIGITAL IMAGE RESTORATION

The Hungarian restoration team followed the guidelines set by the Archive to fix and repair all the image and audio problems identified in the source materials. For the more serious cases of flickering and mould, they even restored each individual frame manually. One of the problems to be fixed was the jittering subtitles. For a few dark scenes with subtitles, our conservation staff decided to keep the shakiness of the original image, so as to maintain consistency with other subtitled scenes and to make the subtitles appear more stable. These scenes were quite darkly lit in the first place and audiences would hardly notice any shakiness.

 Mould stains on image before (left) and after restoration (right)
Mould stains on image before (left) and after restoration (right)

 

SOUND SYNCHRONISATION AND RESTORATION

The audio track of the restored film was mainly extracted from a mono VHS tape. VHS tape and film have different frame rates, the former being 25 frames per second (FPS) and the latter 24 FPS. The audio track from the VHS tape therefore had to be converted into 24 FPS in order to match the visual. Nonetheless part of the audio and visual would still be out of sync with each other and the team had to perfectly sync the two by matching every lip movement of the actor with every line of dialogue and every single sound with every image. The sound technicians even extracted two spoken words that were missing from the VHS tape from the Betacam SP tape's audio track.

 An audio track before (left) and after restoration (right)
An audio track before (left) and after restoration (right)

 

The quality of the audio track extracted from the mono VHS tape was also far from perfect. After noise reduction, the sound technicians had to further adjust the sound frequency, due to the lack of high frequency harmonics. When the audio restoration was completed, the whole sound track was re-mastered in a Dolby re-recording studio to meet the modern cinema standards.

COLOUR CORRECTION

Whenever the Hungarian team had completed one stage of restoration work, they would send the digital files over, and our conservation staff would immediately check the files to see whether the results met our requirements. Occasionally they would use in-house equipment to adjust the colour as reference for the Hungarian team to ensure the best results.

 Before (left) and after (right) colour correction
Before (left) and after (right) colour correction

 

THE RESTORED VERSION of The Secret

The restored version is about 5 minutes longer than the 85-minute edition that has been circulating for years, bringing back to audiences missing footage, which allows them to finally appreciate this cinema classic in its full glory.