The Phantom Lover (1995)

     directed by Ronny Yu

          starring Leslie Cheung, Jacqueline Wu Chen-Lien, Lei

            Huang and Liu Lin

This is one of the many remakes of the 1937 Weibang film Song at Midnight, which, besides being a Phantom adaptation, is one of the enduring classics of Chinese cinema. There have been many, many remakes of this film, just as there have been several Western movie versions, but, sadly, I have not been able to get my hands on the three films that were made between that original one and this one; generally, they're still in print only in China, and in the more obscure places at that. So I'm still looking, but for the moment we're moving along to this 1995 adaptation.

 

The most major deviation, at least to my eye, was the change in emphasis. The 1937 film, while certainly steeped in romantic tragedy to the nth degree, was ultimately focused on its underlying political rhetoric; no surprise, since it was made during a period of intense political instability in China. The political motivations and metaphors were less than subtle in that movie, but while this later adaptation does include political tensions, they are much less pronounced. Instead, the focus here is on the love stories and the tragedy and drama that accompany them, and those relationships are depicted for their own sake rather than as vehicles for a political subtext.

 

I had said when I reviewed the original Song at Midnight that later adaptations would be interesting because their political emphases would probably be different. This turned out not to be strictly true; the film is set in 1936 (one year before its predecessor was released) and the political conflict is mostly the same, though there is far less overt moralizing or rhetoric attached to it here. The initial shots of the horse-drawn carriages arriving at the opera house are intended to remind us of that first film, being very reminiscent of the introductory shots used in 1937 to depict the opera troupe arriving at the haunted stage. There is copious use of mist to help suggest a black and white feeling even though the film is actually shot in extremely faded color; it's a very clever alternative to recycling or mimicking old footage without losing the feel of the original.

 

I am completely in the dark when it comes to romanizations of Asian names and why they might be different or what that might mean. As far as I know, differences in romanization and pronunciation could be nothing more than subtitling snafus or lazy translating. Nevertheless, I'll note anyway that there have been slight changes to most of the names; Song Danping has become Sung Danping (again, that might just be a slightly different romanization), while Xiaoxia has become Yuyan, Liu Die has become Landie, Tang has become Zhao, and Xiaojun has become Wei Qing. I am so not qualified to expound on what these name changes might mean, or how many of them are in fact real name changes at all, so I'll just look mopey over my failure to speak fluent Chinese and move on.

 

The set designs in this film, most of which revolve around the opera house both before and after it becomes a derelict wreck, are absolutely stunning. Our first glimpses of the building are shot from acute lower angles and in an unrelentingly monotonous lack of color, lending the edifice a sense of very Gothic grandeur that manages to both recall the Opera Garnier of Leroux's novel and retain its own unique features. The first shots of its interior, dotted by gossamer-thin catwalks, wispy cobwebbing, ghostly tatters of old banners, all lit by shafts of a distinctly otherworldly white light leaking in from the damaged roof and window, are absolutely gorgeous, not only retaining the feel of the original film's scene but expanding upon it to create something better.

 

This introductory sequence, in which the dismayed opera troupe explores their somewhat less than livable new performance space, is the first to establish the color contrast idea that will be carried throughout the film; while the flashback scenes to the events of five years prior during the heydey of the opera house are shot in sumptuous, brilliant colors, the present-day action is without exception shot in the same extremely faded tones that make it almost indistinguishable from a greyscale or black and white film. The effect is to make the past tragedy much more real-seeming and passionate than current events are, and to suggest to the audience that that joyous splendor, once ruined by the machinations of amoral men and unfeeling governments, can never be restored. It's a very powerful conceit, especially since it's more subtle than it sounds.

 

One of the few places I snagged in the film is also in this introductory sequence; as Qing is exploring the empty catwalks and cavernously beautiful space of the opera house, he sees several extremely short flashbacks (in bright, contrasting color); Yuyan's ghostly voice is heard calling out to her lover, and he sees her running across the stage a couple of times as well. This was excellent for adding a haunting, supernatural spookiness to the atmosphere and for portending the unfolding tragedy to come, especially when he continued to hear her voice in his dreams, but it was also somewhat confusing since it is clear not too much further into the film that Yuyan's not even really dead. I was slightly mystified by Qing's apparent psychic ability, especially when he mentioned the incidents to Landie later, making it clear that it was an actual occurrence and not just artistic shooting on Yu's part. This bizarre idea does not return at any point later in the film, so I concluded that it was an attempt, albeit a slightly confusing one, to suggest that the memories in the opera house are so vivid and ingrained that the building itself remembers the doomed lovers it housed years before. A very pretty idea, but one that wasn't presented as well as I would have liked.

 

In search of answers to his questions about the opera house's past and about the ghostly man's voice he occasionally hears singing when no one else is around, Qing begs the ancient caretaker to tell him the story (amusingly, he is refused until he bribes the man with American chocolate, a rare commodity in 1930's China). The caretaker himself is given an interesting backstory as a former political convict, shunned by the majority of society until Sung hires him as manager of the opera house; in this version, Sung is not himself explicitly stated to be a revolutionary, but small clues such as his harboring of the caretaker and his attitude toward those in power suggest that his sympathies lie in that direction. The caretaker fulfills his role of war survivor from the previous film, and it's a great touch for the man to be fleshed out into a real character instead of being a mere cliched horror-house caricature.

 

We plunge into the flashback, in the initial portion of which Yu intentionally denies us a good look at Sung's face, constantly shooting him from the back or in backlit profile, or obscuring him via glare on his glasses; the obvious foreshadowing to the one-day Phantom's "facelessness" is well-handled, noticeable for a fan of the story but not intrusive and probably overlooked by a first-time viewer. Sung is credited with having designed and built the opera house himself, which hearkens back to Leroux's assertion that the original Erik was a contractor on the building of the Opera Garnier, and which suggests strongly to me a possible influence from Kay's 1990 novel, in which Erik was a genius architect as well as a gifted composer. Sung's architectural design is very avant-garde and forward-thinking for 1920's China, and this will go on to be the major conflict between the character and his environment (and, of course, a metaphor for the entirety of Chinese culture during that period of flux) - that is, that he is constantly innovating and attempting to break the mold, while the government and his surroundings are constantly trying to force him to conform to tradition.

 

I want to digress and whine about my least favorite thing in the film, now. I was mildly confused by the labels used for the various productions going on, though their variety probably has a lot to do with translation difficulties: the building is alternately called an "opera house" and a "theater", while the performances therein are usually called "plays" or occasionally "musicals". "Opera" as a concept has a distinctly different shape in China than in Europe anyway, so some of this may also simply be a disconnect between different musical styles with limited English vocabulary to explain them.

 

Sung is generally referred to as an "opera singer" or an "actor", depending on who's speaking, but therein lies the rub: while Leslie Cheung is certainly all kinds of pretty and I could watch him prance around the screen in Romeo's tights all day, he is by god no kind of an opera singer. It's not that he's tone-deaf or anything, but he simply doesn't have the instrument, and the passages that he performs from Romeo & Juliet, despite being heart-breakingly acted, are really the weak point of the film for me because of this inadequacy. Cheung's voice is pleasant enough, but his breathy crooning of pop tunes is a far cry from Sheng's powerful, emotive baritone in Weibang's 1937 film. (For those wondering, this is totally not Gounod's Romeo & Juliet; it's a musical written for the film, with a very popular-music sort of a feel to it.)

 

My disappointment in Cheung's singing voice aside, the performances, to which we are treated for long stretches of time in much the same vein as the 1937 film, are lovely. They are lush and colorful, featuring simple but beautiful sets and inventive costuming. They are not, by the way, the kind of performances that would have been on display in even the most modernized of Chinese opera houses in the 1920's; the extremely Western dress and minimalist sets are stretching it, for one thing, and all the physical contact between the differently-gendered leads is right out. There's almost no real opera involved, which leaves me questioning the "opera house" and "opera performance" tags that get tossed about, but there is a marked improvement in the music later in the film.

 

Of course, as there was in the 1937 film, there is an evil governor of the old regime, and his son is determined to marry Yuyan despite her obvious preference for Sung. Again, it's interesting to see how the political subtext has been subsumed a bit here; the governor's initial problem with Sung and his performances is that women, who were not allowed to attend theatrical performances of this kind, were frequently sneaking in to see his operas and escaping reprimand. The extremely modernized and Western performances are offensive to the older Chinese hierarchy, which labels them "immoral" and would like to avoid as much Western influence as possible. Sung has no revolutionary background here, so the government's targeting of him is actually more poignant and unjust for the audience, as he has done nothing seditious that could be viewed as asking for it (in fact, it's made clear that they are planning Sung's removal long before it is revealed that he is Yuyan's lover, which makes that motive a very secondary one).

 

Governer Zhao's son's characterization is also quite different, giving the character a very different feel; where the original was oily-smooth and obviously without an overabundance of morals, this character is portrayed as dull, slow, and unsure of what is happening around him - in fact, he's most likely meant to be developmentally disabled. He can't even pronounce Yuyan's name correctly, and is as bumbling and stuttering as it is possible to be (though he seems to grow out of some of these characteristics by the time he is presented as an adult later in the film). The film's use of a person with a developmental condition to represent corruption and stupidity in the government is effective, but it's only effective because it uses developmentally disabled people (or people with speech impediments, etc.) as a punchline, which is a pretty shitty thing to do.

 

Before I forget to mention it, the film's score by Chris Babida - the real score, not the kind of lightweight performance pieces - is everything is should be: sweeping, lush, evocative, romantic, and generally absolutely suited to a grand romantic tragedy. As one might expect, the use of strings and flutes is pretty pervasive, but nothing feels overdone or recycled.

 

The performances of Romeo & Juliet crop up more than once, and an audience may occasionally feel that they block the action from continuing; however, especially as it becomes clear that Yuyan is escaping her home and unhappy engagement to watch her lover's performances each month, the real purpose of the play is to serve as a foreshadowing of the disaster to come and as a metaphor for the harsh realities of the divided worlds in which Sung, the unorthodox actor, and Yuyan, daughter of a respected noble family, live. Yu keeps us from being pulled out of the narrative by splicing the performances with plenty of shots of Yuyan's watching face in the balcony, keeping us involved in her pain and keeping the symbolism below relevant.

 

Sung may not be an actual revolutionary in this version, but he makes it clear that he has no interest in conforming to the established order when agents of the government, including Zhao and his son, disrupt the final act of the performance in order to arrest him for disturbing the peace. It takes a ballsy man to rabble-rouse in white tights, but Sung does it without any apparent trepidation, first refusing to leave without completing his performance and then inciting the crowd in his defense until the ministers are forced to leave while the audience shouts, boos, and pelts them with small objects. Of course, entertaining as this might be, it earns him the eternal enmity of the powerful Zhaos, as does the fact that the younger Zhao sees Yuyan at the performance and realizes that she lied to him about her destination in order to watch Sung.

 

The tragedy begins to unfold in earnest now as, after a tryst with Sung in which he promises to sing for her at every full moon (a more concrete reason for her to come around looking for him than was ever offered in the original film), Yuyan is locked away in her room to await her impending nuptials with the younger Zhao. She sends Sung a letter begging him to elope with her, which he sadly never even gets to read, and is released by her intrepid little maid only to be caught by the family's guards before making it out of the yard (in one of the more brutal moments of the film, Yuyan's father orders the maid's legs broken for her actions; the action is offscreen but the screams certainly aren't, and the poor girl limps around on poorly healed shins for the rest of the film). The shot as Yuyan falls to her knees wailing after being thwarted is particularly powerful as there is a red firelight bathing her face, reminiscent of blood; this not only presages her coming trauma, but also the inevitability of her marriage, as red is the wedding color in China. Sung, meanwhile, never reads Yuyan's letter because Zhao's hired men show up at the theater, scar his face with acid, and then burn the place down around his ears as an example to others who might defy the established order.

 

In case no one was miserable enough yet, Yuyan is married off to Zhao while Sung is recovering from his injuries with the caretaker, and the scene in which she is forced into the marriage bed is stomach-churning in the extreme. Upon discovering in the middle of things that she is not a virgin, the younger Zhao beats her savagely, and again, while we can't actually see the violence, his angry epithets and her piteous screams are more than enough to give an audience that sinking chill. He immediately annuls the marriage and returns Yuyan to her parents, who promptly abandon her and move away so as not to be tainted by the stigma of her dishonorable actions. As in the 1937 film (but thankfully without that bewildering blood-vomiting bit), Yuyan's trauma makes her fully dissociative, and she spends her time wandering her home and the city disconsolately, cared for by her permanently injured maid and always looking for Sung, who never reappeared. She shows up at the deserted theater every month at the full moon in order to hear Sung, and the closing shots of the scene, in which she wanders through the ruined building and the snow and moonlight fall through the broken ceiling on her, are absolutely stunning examples of cinematography.

 

The story is so engrossing that I had actually forgotten that I was in a flashback until we abruptly returned to the present day and the caretaker telling Qing the story; the effect was a bit like being plunged into cold water, the grey tones and ruined building a vast change from the lush colors and passionate events of the older story. Yu follows up on that contrast by giving us several shots into the rehearsals and performances of the current opera troupe, which is putting on a show that is very, very traditionally Chinese (as opposed to Sung's emotive Westernized musicals). The traditional Chinese music here represents stagnation, and is accordingly very boring and almost soulless-sounding in contrast to the performances in the flashback; Western music, and by extension the influence of the Western world, are representative throughout the film of progress, forward-thinking, and a desirable modernity. (This is a theme in a lot of Chinese works; the heavy involvement of European colonialists in China, especially British-occupied Hong Kong, has left very lasting marks as far as cultural stereotypes go.) There is also, here and elsewhere in the film, a marked implication that the modern, Western world represents intelligence, whereas the old world has only empty nationalism to offer (for example, the chorus of the opera troupe's show is almost childish in its simplicity and inanity). Sung, now the Phantom that haunts the opera house, agrees with this assessment and is prone to dropping sheets of glass to shatter on the stage whenever they get too involved; as in the 1937 film, Sung's domain is the catwalks and the top tower of the opera house, an inversion of Leroux's Erik and his underground kingdom.

 

When Qing, still poking around in the rafters, is finally allowed to meet Sung (Sung himself makes that decision, leaving him an easily followed path and an eerily open door that sheds a lot of light on yet another gorgeous shot, this time with the ropes hanging from the flies twisting like live things), the Phantom hands him a copy of the score of Romeo & Juliet and tells him to perform it, which of course comes in the nick of time since the other show is proving quite unpopular and the troupe is in danger of losing their lease on the place for lack of funds. The only quarrel I had with this section of the film was Sung's constant melancholy playing of the fire-scarred, time-worn grand piano that he was still keeping up there; the image is very lovely, of course, but trust me, no piano that has been through a fire still sounds pristine and perfectly tuned like that, especially after experiencing a further five years of neglect during which, I assume, Sung has probably not asked the tuner to come around for a look at it.

 

After some minor difficulty convincing the troupe, they do eventually put on Romeo & Juliet with Qing and Landie in the title roles. I was curious to see if this would bring some color back to the film, but the new performances are as grey as everything else; just as the innocence and joy of those pre-disaster days cannot be recaptured by the characters, neither can the sumptuous colors. This idea that the past can never truly be resurrected is one of the greatest recurring themes in the film. Qing is apparently so reminiscent of Sung that he is hailed as "the rebirth of Sung Danping" (if that's not foreshadowing, I don't know what is), and his voice is apparently so similar that when he freezes up in performance Sung is able to bust off a high note for him with no one in the audience being any the wiser (incidentally, I think that's a first - the Phantom offering lip-synching support for a performer from backstage. It's a nice inversion of his sabotage of Carlotta in the original story). The shots of Sung backstage are quite lovely, making his sorrow evident and emphasizing the wrinkles on his face to remind us of the time elapsed between then and now.

 

And, as per the original film, the younger Zhao (now a middle-aged, bespectacled man with less of a speech impediment but more of an attitude problem) is in attendance and is particularly taken with young Landie, Qing's girlfriend, who is playing Juliet. Much time is spent establishing that Zhao is an unrelentingly abusive bastard to women (one particularly uncomfortable scene sees him forcing a pretty young girl who politely told him that she was no longer hungry to eat an entire plate of bean cakes or suffer a harsh beating); this is notable to me because it echoes one of Leroux's original themes, that society, through its inherent inequalities, creates monsters. The collapse of his marrige to Yuyan is used to suggest that he has become bitter and evil as a result; while he was never entitled to another person (especially one who clearly wanted nothing to do with him) and this certainly does not excuse his behavior, it does make him a much more interesting character than the entitled but ultimately pretty one-dimensional Tang in the original film. His, ahem, invasion of Landie's personal space with his riding crop at tea is especially worrisome for an audience, what with all the unsubtle symbolism and the poor girl behind them desperately trying not to throw up while a thug looms over her.

 

But we can worry about Zhao and his misogynistic problems later, because now it's the night of the full moon, and Yuyan is coming to the opera house to hear her lover's voice. Wu's portrayal of Yuyan is startlingly vivid, which makes it all the more uncomfortable and visceral, especially when compared with the vivacious, dignified woman she was pre-disaster. In one of the larger changes from the original film, Sung fails to tell Qing about Yuyan, instead waiting in the shadows to watch as she enters the opera house and, as planned, delusionally mistakes the boy for her lover. Powerful emotional moments abound here, most of which Qing, as the hapless present-day bystander, is not privy to; Sung's face is a masterful combination of anger, sorrow, and pride at seeing his plan unfold, while Yuyan sees things entirely in flashbacks, Sung standing before her in bright, passionate color while the audience sees only poor grey Qing. The boy, after finally escaping Yuyan, is rather upset with Sung for roping him into this, but Sung's rope traps and death threats help convince him that he should be nice to Yuyan anyway. Actual threats and implied violence are new additions to the Phantom character, which was passive up until the final fight scene in the 1937 film; Cheung's Phantom is a much more overtly passionate, much more self-involved character.

 

When Qing demands that Sung go explain to his lover why he won't see her anymore despite being alive, he unhoods for the first time and exposes his deformity, which is pretty darn neat and pat for the acid-scarring theory (but then again, no more so than the same idea in the 1943 film... or the 1983 film... the list goes on). Sung's face is shown through the spokes of a turning scenery-shifting wheel, preventing us from getting a fix on him and projecting a very powerful image with the nearby motion suggesting an unstoppable chain of events unfolding. The action triggers another, much shorter flashback, this time detailing Sung's experiences after the disaster, including the caretaker's sorrow over his deformity and the almost unbearable intensity of the leaping flames, which are eye-searing after all the greyscale conformity of the regular scenes. Yu's shots are artful, angles and lighting still preventing us from getting a very good look at Sung's deformity even as he's half-throttling Qing and demanding that he look (the same way Leroux's original Phantom held Christine and demanded she look at his accursed ugliness).

 

Qing's tribulations don't end after that, with Yuyan cornering him in the market the next day and dragging him around with her, still under the impression that he is her lover returned to her. The color contrasts are powerful again, flipping between Qing's uncomfortable grey world and Yuyan's mind's eye, which is always invested with the hues of yesteryear. Qing manages to ditch her at the cosmetics stand, but in an occurrence that instantly brings a grip of apprehension to the viewer's stomach, Zhao is driving by in his carriage and sees Yuyan calling for Danping in the crowd. Obviously still unable to let go of the events of several years ago, he has the carriage stopped and, in by far the most awful scene of the movie, beats her with his riding crop while shouting to the crowd of shocked onlookers that she is a whore (and a lot of other unprintable things). In another moment that makes Yu's point about society's stagnation and the need for change, no one in the crowd makes a move despite obvious horror on some of their faces, until Qing, wracked by guilt at abandoning her, shoves a pushcart over Zhao and hoists Yuyan up on his back to carry her off to safety. There's one more great relevatory moment, when the door of Zhao's carriage opens and out steps none other than Landie, who sees her lover carrying an unfamiliar woman just as he sees her coming out of another man's carriage. Ah, the sweet smell of scandal.

 

Of course, Landie insists that she wants nothing to do with Zhao and was only accompanying him to lunch at the request of the opera troupe's director, who wants to court the man's patronage; nevertheless, Qing is not having this explanation and storms out, heading back to the opera house to think. Unfortunately, he decides to do this just at the time that Yuyan was accustomed to her clandestine trysts with Sung, and is confronted with a very amorous lady. Much to my shock, and probably partly in response to his recent tiff with Landie, Qing stops fighting Yuyan after a few moments and really gets into making out with her, the two of them looking for all the world like young lovers enjoying their time together. The real star of this scene, however, is Sung; his face is a mixture of pain and pleasure, as though simultaneously vicariously kissing his lover through Qing and still viewing them as an outsider. In the end, he is unable to take it and roars in pain, at which sound Yuyan suddenly realizes that the guy with his tongue down her throat isn't her lover, prompting her to flee in panicked tears and leave Qing to deal with Sung's extremely considerable wrath.

 

The following verbal fight between the two men is one of the most potent moments of the film. Sung is enraged, ostensibly at Qing's presumption in actually touching Yuyan but on a deeper level at his failure to follow through on his own plan. Rather than accepting Sung's martyred rage, Qing lashes back out at him, snarling that forcing him into Yuyan's arms is "fooling yourself and lying to her". Qing's accusation that Sung is acting in his own selfish best interest is dead-on, a window into this version of the Phantom; while he maintains that he is acting for Yuyan's sake, his hiding in the shadows has more to do with his own inability to let his lover see his imperfection and his absolute revulsion at the idea of showing his ugliness to a world that once idolized him. Pride is at the root of Cheung's Phantom, and where pride was certainly an element of the original Erik, the backstory of having gone from perfection to destitution makes it a much more desperate, foundational attribute of this character.

 

The end of the film is a whirlwind of activity, as Sung, stung by Qing's accusations, finally nerves himself up to reveal to Yuyan that he is still alive and Zhao moves to have Qing removed from the equation to clear his path to Landie. In a move directly stolen from the 1925 film's rather ridiculous ending carriage-chase, Zhao perpetrates a drive-by carriage shooting and downs Yuyan just as she is reunited with her lover, and the ensuing fisticuffs between Zhao and Sung are pure 1937 Weibang/Shan. He kills Zhao, but Qing is blamed for the murder (since Sung is known to be dead, he can hardly be the culprit); Sung finally overcomes his fear of revelation and makes himself known in order to clear the boy, preventing the repeat of the tragedy that we have all been watching the action slowly wind toward. As he finally departs the opera house, the police hot on his trail, the lingering message is one of placing humanity above politics, which is really what Leroux's original story was all about.

 

The ending was the only thing that I found mildly disappointing; Yuyan turns out to have been struck blind by the trauma of her wounds. I hate it when filmmakers and authors solve the problem of a woman loving the disfigured Phantom by just making her blind. It completely devalues the core idea of said romance; rather than love triumphing over the stigma and psychological difficulty of a physical deformity, the message is that a person so hideous could be loved only by someone who was unable to see it. It is a trashy way to try to "solve" the problem. It runs totally counter to the intent of Leroux's story. However, it was done fairly subtly and really wasn't a major theme of the film, so I didn't end up knocking the grade down over it... even though, and I cannot say it enough, I hate it when people do that.

 

As is probably expected, the majority of this film is drawn directly from the 1937 Weibang/Shan movie, which was in turn based mostly on the 1925 Julian/Chaney film; however, there are more than a few nods to Lloyd Webber, including Sung's half-face deformity (though he still uses the traditional hood rather than a mask) and the pop melodies of Romeo & Juliet. While I certainly don't want to impugn anyone's artistic talents, John and I both sat up during the performances more than once and said, "Frank Wildhorn, is that you?", particularly at a few phrases that sounded ripped straight from the score of The Scarlet Pimpernel; however, since this film was made two years before that musical was debuted, we must assume that's a coincidence.

 

The only thing I'm missing in this film is a little more of the horror element; if I could convince this film to have a baby with Dario Argento's Opera, I would probably never watch anything else ever again.

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