top of page

Song at Midnight (Ye ban ge sheng) (1937)

     directed by Ma-Xu Weibang

          starring Jin Shan, Hu Ping and Chau-Shui Yee

 It took much too long to get to this film, but it was worth the wait. I had trouble getting a copy of it in the first place, which is sad because it's pretty readily available. I was just being picked on with defective copies and shipping snafus. Luckily, that's all sorted out now, and I finally got a chance to watch what is often referred to as one of the first (if not THE first) true Chinese horror films.


This is the interpretation of the story that varies most wildly from its source material so far, deviating even more than the Yeston/Kopit musical version did. Set in China, the basic premise is still intact (a disfigured musical genius haunts an opera house, takes on a protege, tragedy ensues), but there is a huge undercurrent of political unrest owing to the upheaval in China before and during the Nanjing Decade; the complex political sub-plot is therefore probably incomprehensible to viewers without any background in Chinese history, and necessitated some research on my part before I could get a decent enough handle on it to review its implications.


That said, I am not Chinese, and have never been to China, nor do I have a degree in Chinese studies; it is quite likely that there is a lot of symbolism in this movie that I missed out on simply because it differs from Western symbolism so much that I didn't recognize it. There are probably also historical references that flew clean over my head. If anyone out there with a little more cultural insight wanted to enlighten me, I'd be only too happy to hear a more in-depth analysis than my own.


Like the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, which influenced this one almost exclusively (as the story goes, Weibang saw the Julian/Chaney film and liked it so much that he decided to remake it in a Chinese context, though there are some marked differences between the plots of the two films), this is an older style of movie and cannot be watched in the same way that your average movie viewer is accustomed to munching popcorn through today. Though it is a "talkie", coming twelve years after Julian's silent film, it is still in black and white and employs the same leisurely, almost funereal pace that may put off some modern viewers who are used to constant action and exposition.


Additionally, the picture quality is even poorer than the Julian/Chaney film's, as the negatives for Weibang's film are lost to time and there is only so much restoration possible. Nevertheless, it's one of the most beloved examples of classic Chinese cinema, and absolutely stunning if one can take the time to get used to the antiquated style; the fact that it's set in China was actually an aide in my re-acclimatizing myself to it, since I had very few preconceived notions about how a Chinese movie ought to be paced (my only real point of reference was Yimou's excellent 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, which funnily enough also featured Chinese opera singing in parts).


The largest criticism of this film in its home country at the time of its release was that it was too Westernized; after watching it, I have to presume that this is due in part to its tendency to go from a sedate, mood-enhancing Asian score to sudden use of popular European classical music at the drop of a hat. Several times over the course of the film I sat up and said, "Hey, that's Beethoven/Mozart/Debussey," which injected a little bit of unintentional parody into the proceedings as the effect was a lot like hearing the same musical pieces used in a Looney Tunes cartoon. It's not that it isn't effective, but combined with the popular Western dress worn by most of the opera company and the surviving themes of Leroux's very French story, it isn't difficult to see why a Chinese audience might have felt that too much of the film was imported.


There is a lot of opera in this movie, and it is pretty much all Chinese. There are many extended scenes involving arias being sung or operas being performed, and those with little patience for that in a Western setting will probably be hopelessly disinterested in this one. Chinese music is extremely modally different from Western music, and the Western-acclimated ear is disoriented by what seem to be alien phrasing choices and bizarre chord progressions. The preferred vocal type is generally different as well, though there is not as marked a dichotomy between male singers of each style (and since this film features male opera singing almost exclusively, it's not that great an issue; many Westerners find the preferred feminine vocal sound for classical Chinese opera to be unbearably nasal when they aren't used to it). As a vocal major who, sadly, was trained quite thoroughly in Western music but almost never got to say a passing hello to Asian chord organization, I found the opera sequences endlessly fascinating despite my inability to really extrapolate anything meaningful from the way the tones were arranged (I can, however, say that the text is generally much more poetic and metaphorical than the straight-up expository dialogue favored in Western opera).


After a short tour through the abandoned opera house (which, unlike its French counterpart, is operated on a somewhat less fixed basis; its owners rent it out to an opera company for their performances, and receive a cut of the profits in return, a distinction that will be important later), which features plenty of cobwebs, shadows, and dusty desolation, our first real scene is one of these operatic moments, in which a cloaked, hidden man serenades a silent woman on a balcony. The scene, as mentioned earlier, is very long and features little variation except in the lyrics of the singer, but gives us a great many clues as to the story in store for us, particularly in the singer's morbid assertions of abandonment and loneliness and in the woman's eerily unmoving and apparently catatonic state. Our first introduction to the political plot also comes here, when the singer asserts that he as been royally screwed over by the corrupt holdovers of feudal China, but that he will never cease in his quest for revenge on its tyranny; while the political climate at this point in Chinese history is much more overtly striated, the parallel to Leroux's comment on the unhelpful conflict between social classes is obvious, and is probably one of the reasons the Frenchman's plot appealed so much to Weibang.


The singer, Sheng Jialun (Shan did not actually sing the part of the Phantom, rather doing the acting and letting the professional Sheng dub over him for the singing parts), has a lovely voice which comes through despite the poor sound quality of the film; I wasn't initially knocked off my feet, but I have to admit that it grew on me as the aria continued, until I was looking forward to every time there would be singing in the film. Several lyrics here are also absolute bulls-eyes for the Phantom story's dynamics, including the assertion to the woman that "You are the moon in the sky, and I am a cold star near that moon," suggesting the Phantom's nearness to but ultimate inability to be with his love, and the melancholy statement that he has "only this midnight song" to offer her, much as Leroux's Erik felt that his music and voice were the only positive aspects to his entire wretched being, and the only things that Christine might love.


We cut to later on, and a new opera troupe decides to fix up the old stage and use it as their new base of performance; while there are nods to Leroux's Erik here and there (several dummies hung by their necks in one chilling shot, a general feeling of disquiet and haunting in the theater), Shan's lurking genius isn't really into the whole haunting the opera house thing. He just sort of lives there and basks in the tragedy of it all, an idea that will be prominent in many situations; like several versions of the Phantom soon to follow him, this one is essentially a victim rather than a criminal danger, and his behavior is accordingly much less terrifying.


Here's where things really start to diverge from the source material: our "Christine" turns out not to be the silent woman from the balcony at all, but a young man named Sun Xiaojun. He, too, has a rather lovely voice, but when it's announced that he'll be singing the lead in the first opera they perform, he flubs the first rehearsal badly. I really couldn't figure out why; he can't just naturally suck, since the opera company admitted him and gave him a lead role, and indeed the director says with some annoyance that he's sung much better before. It seems to just be Nerves Brought on by Need for a Plot Device, of which I seldom approve. At any rate, the lurking figure in the opera house, the same hooded and cloaked shadow that we saw singing to the woman on the balcony, decides to teach Xiaojun to sing; the old groundskeeper of the place, who seems to have no name but who fulfills a function reminiscent of Madame Giry, the boxkeeper, informs him that it is the ghost of Song Danping, the famous singer, and that he should accept its tutelage despite never seeing the person to whom the disembodied voice belongs. The acting here is particularly strong, with Xiaojun (played by Chau-Shui Yee, who would go on to be a very famous actor of the era) seeming every bit as spellbound by the ghost's voice as any incarnation of Christine.


Of course, this gender-switching simply begs to be analyzed from a homoerotic perspective, but you know what? There's pretty much nothing there. Xiaojun's trance-like, reverent state has more to do with awe and hero worship at being confronted with a star like Danping, and with the disbelief inherent in being taught by a ghost, than with anything particularly romantically emotional. Xiaojun is certainly attracted to this powerful, talented man, but I didn't see much subtext to back up any flitting thoughts of sexual implications. I tabled the idea in case it came up again later in the film, but subsequent developments in the plot actually make it even less likely, so those in search of that elusive gay-themed Phantom story will have to continue their lonely quest.


Anyway, Danping tutors Xiaojun from the shadows, and when it comes time to perform he does indeed sound a ton better, and has (in my untutored-in-the-ways-of-Chinese-opera opinion) an even more pleasant natural voice than does Danping, though the two do sound remarkably similar. Determined to offer his thanks in person, Xiaojun goes looking for the ghost in the still-unused back portions of the opera house, and an extremely entertaining interlude ensues where every time he takes a step closer to the ghost's lair, an organ tone sounds. I passed some enjoyable time speculating as to whether the Phantom was actually playing an organ tone each time he took a step, leading him on in an incomprehensible game of Hot-or-Cold, or if the noises were simply an early-warning system to let the ghost know that intruders were on the way. I would have thought it was the orchestra adding a little flavor to the proceedings, but Xiaojun seemed quite aware of (and bewildered by) the sounds, so the mystery remains.


Of course, Xiaojun does find the ghost's hideout in the tower, and the orchestra goes bananas, indulging in sudden bass rumbles and atonal squeals and tangles from the strings, signifying not only fear but also a certain creepy otherworldliness. This version of the Phantom, in keeping with just about everything else being changed, does not wear a mask; instead, he wears a heavy black hood that completely hides his face and gives him the extremely unsettling appearance of possibly not having a face at all, or of being perhaps entirely inhuman (there's more room for wild speculation on the part of the audience, since a hood doesn't show a normal-shaped face the way a mask does). His hands, the only visible part of him, are gnarled and twisted and thoroughly nasty-looking, which gives us a good idea of the ickiness in store when he inevitably shows us his face.


Xiaojun, who now that he has succeeded in finding his ghostly mentor seems to have suddenly remembered how frightened he is by the whole thing, succeeds in getting Danping to confirm his identity as the deceased opera singer, and to admit that he is mortal, but not the same as other mortals; he mentions being similar, having blood and breath like others, but still being set apart, dialogue which is very reminiscent of Leroux's Erik's feelings of ostracization from the rest of the human race. Danping turns out to be way more talkative than most versions of the Phantom, but it's not unbelievable; rather, Shan plays him as a recluse who is desperate to finally tell his story to a sympathetic listener after years of obscurity and injustice. Anyway, he reveals to the shocked Xiaojun that he was a Kuomintang revolutionary ten years ago (though he's not so blatant about it, so I had to do a lot of educated guesswork and then read up on a lot of Chinese history before I was sure what he was talking about) before plunging us into a series of flashbacks explaining his backstory.


My first note on the flashbacks, as we see a young Danping riding with his fellow revolutionaries, is "soundtrack sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov's Night on Bald Mountain sped up to 2x." And after another minute or two of flashbacking, I realized that it WAS. Of all the very noticeable popular Western music used in this film, this was the one that made me giggle, most likely because it's forever fixed in my mind as either A) a very stirring ballet performance of a witches' sabbath I saw set to it, or B) Walt Disney's Fantasia, neither of which has much of anything to do with Chinese guys riding around on horses and setting shit on fire. The speed-up of the music helps add a sense of urgency (the piece on its own is pretty ponderous and ominous), and also makes it sound different enough if you aren't looking for it that it doesn't jar too badly. Anyway, Danping has been a revolutionary since he was a teen, a leader of an entire army of boys about the same age, which puts me in mind of the daroga's assertion in Leroux's novel that Erik had commanded armies in his youth. He's very anxious to let Xiaojun, and by extension the audience, know that he considers his time fighting for the revolution to be his golden age, rather than his undercover opera-singing career; it's the most blatant clue that the political plot of the movie is much more in the forefront of Weibang's mind than the musical and emotional ones.


At any rate, we get to see a flashback of Danping in his opera-singing days, with his girlfriend Xiaoxia (who is, of course, the silent lady on the balcony from the beginning of the film). We watch another opera performance by Danping (quite the looker in his youth), this one a stirring martial and political piece with a very stylized, inorganic feel as opposed to the Western music that preceded it and the more flowing song we last heard him sing to Xiaoxia. Danping and Xiaoxia are apparently fellow revolutionaries as well as lovers, but Xiaoxia's father is the local warlord opposed to the revolution, so their association is fraught with peril and predictable tragedy is about to ensue. Xiaoxia warns Danping that her father thought the opera was directed at him and that he may punish him or suspect him to be a revolutionary, and there is much impassioned speech-making about how they will never leave each other and will never let one another get hurt and more Romeo and Juliet silliness of that ilk.


Night on Bald Mountain continues to make cheerful entrances at random points as Danping is indeed arrested and whipped for his impertinence, much of which Xiaoxia watches without being able to interfere. I probably wouldn't have laughed at her slightly over-acted faint so much if I hadn't already been amused by the fact that the sound-sync was woefully off in this part of the film and some lashes of the whip were silent, while at other times there were whipcracks when nobody was hitting the poor guy. Also, there was a horse freaking the fuck out behind the whipping, which I suspect was not in the script and had more to do with the horse not appreciating all the bright lights and loud sounds. Danping's persecution here has much more to do with the political undercurrents of the situation, of course, than with his romance with Xiaoxia (which I'm sure daddy wouldn't approve of, but it isn't first on his mind).


Danping gets to drag himself off somewhere to recuperate, while Xiaoxia is harassed by Tang Jun, her oily and unwelcome (but rich, of course) suitor, who makes a habit of wringing his hands unpleasantly and smiling lustfully at her whenever she isn't looking. Jun brings in the idea of class divide, though the dynamic of Leroux's novel (Raoul as Vicomte vs. Christine as guttersnipe) has been reversed, making Xiaoxia, the warlord's daughter, the one who shouldn't be associating with the common-born stage performers (interestingly, the Chinese conception of stage performers seems, based on this movie, to be fairly analogous to that of nineteenth-century France; there's quite a bit more promiscuity and lack of respect for convention going on, as well as an assumption by most of the higher-class characters that everyone in the opera house is willing to sell their sexual services). The idea of a socially forbidden love is a potent one in such a propriety-prominent society as early turn-of-the-century China, which is probably another contributing factor to Weibang's interest in the story. Regardless of Jun's attempts to convince Xiaoxia to dump her opera-singer beau and marry him, she refuses, so Jun hires some guys to go get rid of Danping to clear the field.


Danping is very helpful for his ambushers, insisting on always wearing a flowing, dramatic opera cape despite everyone else just being in normal suits, which made me snicker more than once. Jun's men are apparently not overly schooled in subtlety, and just jump Danping when he comes out of the stage door after a performance, throwing acid on him and then fleeing before they can be caught; in another moment illustrating the social divide, some of the other actors set up a cry that Tang Jun is behind it and is a murderer, only to shut the hell right up when the authorities arrive and take a very dim view of actors accusing Jun of anything. This is not only the first version of the Phantom story to use acid to scar the title character, but also the first one to give him a backstory including his receipt of the deformity, as Leroux's novel and Julian's film based on it had both asserted that the deformity was a congenital birth defect or condition; Western film wouldn't use these ideas until 1943 in the Lubin/Rains production, which also used acid and portrayed the Phantom as a victim as well as a monster.


Bizarrely, and despite his family's exhortations, Danping (now swathed entirely in bandages) refuses to seek legal action against Jun for Xiaoxia's sake, though I have no idea how this makes sense (he keeps repeating that he will bear this for her sake, so there must be some kind of political or philosophical issue going on here that I'm not familiar with). Despite the somewhat overblown silliness preceding, however, the scene wherein Danping's bandages are finally removed is extremely gripping and powerful; Shan's vocal acting is great, with the sounds he makes from behind the bandages piteous and broken without crossing the line into parody, and his begging to free his hands and face "from this prison" is again very similar to lines from Leroux's novel. Weibang lets us know unequivocally that Danping's optimism is misplaced; frequently throughout the scene, we cut to the storm outside the house, and when Danping speaks of returning to Xiaoxia and his life, thunder crashes ominously, foreshadowing the tragedy at hand. As is unsurprising to anyone familiar with the Phantom story, the second the bandages come off Danping's mother and sister scream and run across the room, a seemingly excessively strong reaction. I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the deep-rooted social stigma of leprosy in China, where it has been in the past (and still is in some parts even today) such an ostracizing factor that even children of lepers or people who had recovered from the disease were not permitted to live among normal people; while Danping's acid-scarring is worse than any case of leprosy I've ever seen (warning: my experience with leprosy is very limited), there are features in common between the two.


At any rate, despite what didn't look like that much acid during the attack, Danping is hideous. Shan is wearing what I consider by far the most horrible-looking deformity of any film Phantom I've seen so far, surpassing even Chaney's masterful makeup job for sheer gross-out factor. Especially in an older film, it's an impressive accomplishment (I'm looking at you, new films that skimp on the deformity!). While it still doesn't quite have the punch of Erik's deformity from Leroux's novel, which was an almost literal representation of death, it's pretty close; the obvious visual representation of decay and disease isn't that far off.


At any rate, Danping (after a short but very emotionally powerful destructive rampage as he realizes that he might as well be dead as far as normal social interaction is concerned) orders that Xiaoxia be told that he died of his wounds and declares himself forever removed from the rest of mankind, taking off to hide in the opera house until he dies. Xiaoxia does not take the news well, running out into the rain in a fit of hysterical screaming, only to have an irrevocable traumatic break when she is unable to hurl herself off the balcony to her death. Weibang again enhances the scene masterfully, letting the constant, booming tolling of Xiaoxia's clock remind the viewer of the mortality of man and the futility of humankind's attempts to control the world. Xiaoxia's mad laughter is a little less convincing than I would have liked, but she makes up for it by vomiting blood a moment later and passing out in her nurse's lap (as a side note: what makes you vomit blood? All I can think of is that she might have been consumptive, though there's no evidence of that anywhere else in the film. It's probably artistic license to illustrate the depth of her suffering). Her father and the rest of the family move out, leaving Xiaoxia to live there with her nurse in obscurity. Danping is understandably mortified when he discovers what has happened, since he was trying to make her life easier by telling her he was dead, not drive her out of her mind; the old groundskeeper of the opera house convinces him to comfort her by singing to her from a hiding place each night, so that the sound of her lover's voice is the only thing that can bring her out of her misery for a few minutes (and now we're back to the opening scene).


And we're finally back in the present, having finished the giant flashback (it was all useful exposition, but felt draggy in places; I've never been a huge fan of doing flashbacks when you can just use clues and expository dialogue instead). Weibang makes copious use of silence here, which is extremely powerful after the backstory, adding a suspenseful air that really makes the story seem to have come from beyond the grave. When dialogue does begin again, Danping's mutterings about being "just like a corpse" and being trapped "alone in this grave of an opera house" are forceful reminders, again, of Leroux's text.


Initially, I wasn't sure exactly why he was pouring his life story out to Xiaojun, who is after all just some kid he happened to recently pick up at the opera house. My first thought, that he saw some of himself in the young singer (my second thought was that maybe I was wrong about the lack of sexual undertones, but that idea proved, again, to have no merit), turned out to be the closest to the truth, but it was by no means correct. Danping is, even now, entirely devoted to Xiaoxia and wants her to be happy, so he has therefore trained Xiaojun (and, it's implied, other young men before him who didn't work out - which reminds me of the little clues in Leroux's novel that there may have been proteges before Christine) to actually take his place and take over his life. He wants the kid to go out and sing to Xiaoxia; Danping has trained him to sound exactly like him, so poor Xiaoxia will mistake him for her missing lover and they can live happily ever after while Danping rots alone in his tower, no longer causing his lover any pain. Xiaojun is (not surprisingly) shocked by the idea and pretty resistant to taking over a dead man's life and marrying his deranged girlfriend, but Danping is so piteous that in the end Xiaojun agrees to go sing to her, just to see if she really does mistake him for Danping.


The next scene, wherein Xiaojun goes to sing at her window and Xiaoxia does indeed believe her lover has come back to her, is masterfully eerie and haunting, making the viewer at least as nervous about its outcome as poor Xiaojun. Hu Ping's physicality as Xiaoxia is excellent; she really walks like the living dead, and the moments when some understanding or spark come into her eyes are especially startling and chilling after the flat, glassy stare she employs most of the time. Danping hides in the trees to watch, setting up some particularly tragic shots as he watches his love with another man, and I couldn't help but think that Weibang had borrowed at least a little bit from Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, which also features a hero with a problem with his physical appearance (though nowhere near the beleaguered Erik's). Xiaoxia's particular brand of distress also reminded me a little bit of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, though there isn't much support for that beyond my gut reaction to her.


The singing in this scene is, again, gorgeous, though the viewer not acclimated to opera would probably find it gratuitous. Xiaojun seems pretty petrified of Xiaoxia when she comes down from her balcony to accost him, which is understandable because she looks pretty terrifying; in an attempt to stop her from fixating on him, he goes into a huge political exhortation, giving her a heartfelt speech on how Danping's failure shouldn't encourage her to give up and how she must be selfless and fight on in the revolution (and, it is implied, in life in general) in order to honor his memory and achieve his goals. Poor Xiaoxia appears to have little idea what he's talking about, but she mulls it over while he makes his escape and her overjoyed nurse fawns on her, excited that she's at least talking (even if it is all nonsense about dead guys).


Of course, this whole idea of sending Xiaojun to Xiaoxia in his place smacks of a metaphor for sex; Danping is no longer capable of loving Xiaoxia or attending to her needs, so he's sending her a young, healthy man to do it for him. Just as in Leroux's novel, there's a marked metaphorical connection between singing (the act of generating music, creation) and sex (the act of generating life, creation). Danping sings for Xiaoxia, but it has no effect because he is no longer a "man" according to his own estimation; it's therefore only Xiaojun she responds to.


Danping goes home to mope over how everything is going the way he planned, and a shaken Xiaojun seeks solace with his girlfriend, another member of the opera troupe named Liu Die. There is much consternation over the fact that the opera company isn't making enough money to break even, so the landlords are scrambling to demand payment while the company schemes to peace out and soak them for the rent on the theater. In order to prevent this from happening, Danping turns up again to give Xiaojun the opera that is his life's work (obviously analogous to Erik's Don Juan Triumphant, though as with everything else in this film the story has been changed to give the opera political oomph), the same opera that got him into trouble ten years ago, exclaiming that it is a masterpiece and that the troupe will have no trouble making money if they perform it.


Danping's few appearances here lead us to believe he's become even more unstable than before, rushing from place to place and laughing maniacaly at the drop of a hat; I think it has to do with us not having seen him happy before this, and his psychological distress becomes more clear when he isn't wallowing in Xiaoxia-related angst that makes us pity him. As an aside, I was mildly shocked to see Danping giving this kid his life's work, but the dichotomy between that and Erik's refusal to let anyone see or hear his opera isn't that odd, after all; Danping now views Xiaojun as a sort of extension of himself .


So the opera is performed, and it's a big success with Xiaojun in the lead (not surprising, since he's been trained by the composer and first star), and our old nemesis Tang Jun is in the audience (now the warlord himself, or possibly some kind of governor... I wasn't quite sure on that point, but he's definitely in a position of power and part of the higher social echelon), and he takes an unfortunate fancy to Die, Xiaojun's girlfriend, and tragedy is once more obviously imminent. While he's plotting to woo her (incidentally, the slimy threat to the singer's innocence is another convention that won't show up in Western film until the 1962 Fisher/Lom production's nasty D'Arcy character), Danping is angsting about in the rafters over his entire life being absorbed by Xiaojun until he stops dead and utter silence reigns on film as he sees Xiaojun embrace Die backstage. While Jun sends Die a note asking her to meet him, which she promptly ignores (quite rudely, in fact), Danping confronts Xiaojun about his lover in an excess of emotional trauma. Xiaojun spends most of the scene looking uncomfortable, while Danping agonizes over his failure, once again, to save Xiaoxia (since Xiaojun already has a lover, he cannot be expected to take Danping's place as Xiaoxia's lover and therefore the lady in question is going to remain isolated and miserable, all of which Danping sees as a personal betrayal and failure on his part).


Shaken again by the frighteningly intense man who keeps trying to make him marry his equally scary girlfriend, Xiaojun flees to go find solace with Die again, only to find that she isn't in bed and that the other opera girls are giggling and snide about his questions, informing him that she's gone out with Jun and he really shouldn't wait up. Die is actually at Jun's residence, but she's gone there to inform him that she has no interest in him and to ask him to kindly stop bothering her, none of which he takes well (in fact, he doesn't take it at all for a while, viewing her with a sort of indulgent amusement). He trots out the social stigma of being a performer again, informing her that he likes her half out of pity for her miserable situation, and half out of regard for her beauty; despite his offers of lifelong stability and comfort for his concubine, Die rejects him anyway and leaves. While this is a fairly common device in asserting the purity of a heroine, Die is not really the most major of characters here; rather, this is another political comment, Die's rejection of Jun representative of the refusal of the lower class to acquiesce to the demands of the lords (intriguingly, many Western adaptations of the story will also take this tack, but they will mistakenly direct it against Raoul as a representation of aristocracy).


Xiaojun's boiling anger over Die's apparent betrayal leads him to reject her when she returns, even as she's tearfully trying to explain that she went to Jun's to tell him no, not to submit to him. Personally, I thought she sounded sincere, but I suppose it's understandable for him not to believe her under the circumstances. Not one to take no for an answer from an opera-performing peasant, Jun shows up in Die's dressing room while she's changing and attempts to rape her, but both Xiaojun, who was intending to give her another piece of his mind, and Danping, who was lurking and has a personal score to settle with Jun, arrive to put a stop to things. Pissed off to no end, especially when Xiaojun starts shouting at him in a rage, Jun pulls out a pistol and attempts to shoot the other man; unfortunately, as one would expect from a film to cheerfully steeped in every tragic trope ever invented, Die shoves him out of the way and takes the bullet, which kills her. Before Jun can shoot again, Danping trots out some serious violence, and his appearance - which really seems to literally be that of a vengeful ghost bent on Jun's destruction - is enough to unnerve Jun into flight.


Then, in the same vein as the ridiculous carriage-chase scene in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, there is a very extended knock-down drag-out fistfight between Jun and Danping--literally, between the Phantom and the society which rejects him. The metaphor is so blatantly overt that it almost can't be called metaphor anymore. Also borrowed from the 1925 film, an angry mob with pitchforks springs up seemingly out of nowhere (from what I can tell, it seems to be made up of equal parts Jun's soldiers, the bewildered remains of the opera company, and the enraged audience) to hunt Danping down as a traitor and a murderer, and said mob starts running comically about the countryside with torches and pitchforks as Night on Bald Mountain blares away in all is normal-speed glory. Danping is finally victorious, but poor abandoned Xiaoxia, who has appeared on the balcony for her nightly serenade, is seriously unnerved by the howling mob and the absence of her lover, and starts freaking out. The mob finally corners Danping in a tower and sets fire to it, and he supposedly dies, though a shot of him leaping off into the water signifies the ever-popular Sequel Potential (and a sequel was made about four years after this, in fact).


Then Xiaojun makes a stirring, impassioned speech about how Danping has sacrificed himself for the revolution and that everyone should strive to follow his example and fight ever harder for their freedom. The final shot of the film is Xiaojun tenderly holding Xiaoxia, while both stare somewhat traumatized at the horizon; with Die and Danping both dead, Xiaojun has "fulfilled the wish of Danping's life" and remained to care for his love.


In a version of the story that has been so radically changed, it's difficult to judge it based on the themes of the original, which have been removed in some places, replaced in others, and emphasized to the point of being unrecognizable in still others. The most obvious theme of Leroux's original story is the redemption of evil through love; while Danping is a misunderstood, unfairly ostracized hero rather than a villain, this does make its appearance in his desperate need to redeem his actions by making Xiaoxia happy at any cost. The most easily translated idea, however, remains the class struggle; where Leroux poked fun at both classes and made it clear that the striation of society was to blame for many of its ills, Weibang has extended the metaphor to suit the situations of the political climate in China. Die, Xiaojun, Xiaoxia and Danping are literal representations of the struggling lower class attempting to break the bonds of the corrupt ruling class, and Die's and Danping's deaths represent the cruelty and suffering endured by the people, while Xiaojun's and Xiaoxia's continuing struggle represents the unquenchable spirit of the Chinese people and their refusal to be browbeaten.


While it's taken to an unfamiliar extreme, the ideas of class lines and of the characters representing a much more profound social message than their little tragic life stories is pretty darn spot-on for the original story; it's a testament to both Julian's film, which carried the ideas well enough for Weibang to seize hold of them, and to Weibang's impressive interpretive ability that this film turned out as well as it did. While there are, at last count, at least seven or eight further versions of Song at Midnight/Midnight Song/Voice at Midnight/Midnightmare, which has become one of the most beloved of Chinese tragedies, they are not all readily available to little old me, but I'll certainly be trying to get hold of them as soon as is possible. In a film with so much political subtext, every reiteration should presumably have something new to offer in terms of message.

bottom of page