September 14, 2007
Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)
Ever since it was conceived by French writer Gaston Leroux in his novel, "The Phantom of the Opera", the tale of a disfigured musical genius who roams the Opera house has become one of the most famous horror stories of all, and the inspiration of many films. Without a doubt, the most famous of those films was Rupert Julian's "The Phantom of the Opera", produced by Universal studios in 1925 with Lon Chaney as the Phantom. That classic adaptation would be one of Universal's biggest hits of all time, and not only in America, as literally in every country it was shown it became very popular. In one of its showings, the film was seen by a young Chinese filmmaker named Weibang Ma-Xu, whom fascinated by Chaney's performance, conceived his very own version of the story and titled it "Ye Ban Ge Sheng", literally, "A Song at Midnight".
The story is set in an old theater, where many important actors performed once, but that now is abandoned as rumor says that the ghost of famous singer Song Dangping (Shan Jin) roams the place. One night, an acting troupe arrives, hoping to have success in such a famous theater. However, they all end up disappointed when they see the sad state of disuse in which the theater is right now. Despite this, they begin the preparations for their debut, and young singer Sun Xiaoou (Chau-Shui Yee) is chosen to play the lead. Xiaoou retires to practice alone, as he has troubles to sing the part correctly, and it's at this moment when he hears the ghost of Song Dangping, who appears to teach him how to sing. With the aid of the ghost, Xiaoou is a success, but when he tries to thank his master, he discovers the secret behind the ghost of Song Dangping.
As written above, director Weibang Ma-Xu wrote "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" as a reinterpretation of "The Phantom of the Opera"'s story, however, he only took the concept of the deformed musical genius and created his very own tale out of it. "A Song at Midnight" is essentially, a tragic romance with horror elements, as the plot focuses on the Phantom's inability to be with the woman he loves (played by Ping Hu) and his decision to use his disciple to interact with the world he lost. It's a really fresh take on the concept, as it truly keeps the spirit of the story while at the same time adapting it to the Chinese culture. Ma-Xu plays skillfully with mystery and suspense, as he unfolds the details of the story with the care of an artisan. It's pretty obvious that he loved the concept a lot, as his development of both plot and characters is remarkably good.
Interestingly, the idea of the story wasn't the only thing Ma-Xu adapted from Western film-making, the style Ma-Xu uses in "A Song at Midnight" is also clearly inspired by Universal horror movies of the 20s and the 30s (mainly "Frankenstein" and "Dracula"). With the excellent cinematography by Boqing Xue and Xingsan Yu, together with a slightly expressionist set design, director Ma-Xu creates an ominous gloomy atmosphere of mystery and magic that really sets the mood for this story of horror and romance (most of the scenes are set at night). Naturally, the film has many limitations due to budgetary reasons, however, Weibang Ma-Xu inventively manages to create a very powerful film that looks great despite his limited resources. I also must say that the work of make-up for this Phantom is simply excellent.
The cast is pretty effective in their performances, and despite the natural melodrama of the story, there's little overacting in the film. In his debut on film, Chau-Shui Yee (who would become a big star in the 40s) is very good as the young Sun Xiaoou, and while he looks a bit wooden at times, he truly had a natural presence in front of the camera. As the tragic anti-hero Sing Dangping (Shan Jin) is simply excellent, managing both the fearsome and the vulnerable sides of his character with a great ease and control. It's impossible to know if the singing voices of their characters are those of Shan Jin and Chau-Shui Yee, but their work is simply masterful. Ping Hu plays Li Xiaoxia, Sang Dangping's lover, and while she looks beautiful in her role, she is prone to overacting just a bit too much for her own sake, although it's not really a problem.
While an interesting example for early Chinese horror, "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" is sadly far from being a masterpiece, as there are several details that prevent this film from being perfect. Contrary to what could be expected, the film's main problem is not caused by the low budget, but by the strange pace the film has at times. What I mean is that often the story flows at a good pace but suddenly it gets slowed by long scenes of Chinese opera that, while of great beauty (and very interesting to foreigners), damage the pace the story has and can be boring to people not expecting this (In a way similar to Universal's 1943 remake of "The Phantom of the Opera"). Other than that, the movie is an excellent Chinese entry into the early horror genre, and those with a fondness for Universal horror films from the 30s will find a movie very much akin to their tastes.
Sadly, when it was initially released, "A Song at Midnight" struggled to be taken seriously because Chinese critics considered it was "too American" for a Chinese film. Fortunately, audiences reacted better and it is now one of the most famous horror films in the country (so much that Ma-Xu directed a sequel in the 40s, the Shaw brothers made a remake in the 60s, and recently Ronny Yu has done another version in the 90s). Fans of Asian cinema, this movie was the beginning of all.
Buy "Ye Ban Ge Sheng" (1937)