Gothic horror in a Chinese setting: The Phantom Lover with Leslie Cheung, inspired by the Lon Chaney classic and a movie by ‘China’s Horror Master’
- Ronny Yu’s The Phantom Lover, starring Leslie Cheung, was inspired by Maxu Weibang’s 1937 masterpiece Song at Midnight and by The Phantom of the Opera
- Maxu, dubbed ‘China’s Horror Master’, brought the Gothic flair of Western horror films to his movie and its 1941 sequel and Yu’s film added a decadent grandeur
The Gothic flair of classic Western horror films like James Whale’s Frankenstein and those from Britain’s Hammer studios has rarely turned up in Hong Kong cinema – whose filmmakers have preferred to reference their own Chinese traditions and folklore.
Here we look at how the originals, directed by eccentric Shanghai-based filmmaker Maxu Weibang, played into Yu’s atmospheric version.
Song at Midnight
Maxu Weibang’s 1937 masterpiece Song at Midnight, also known as Midnight Song in English, earned him the title of “China’s Horror Master” and started a mini wave of horror films in mainland China.
The film drew on Universal Studios’ Phantom of the Opera in terms of story – Maxu had watched numerous foreign films – and replicated its macabre tone.
But Maxu added a local political edge to the story which, as one critic noted in 1937, “dealt a serious blow to the remnants of feudalistic power”.
Anti-Japanese sentiment came to the fore in the film’s sequel, Song at Midnight, Part II, made in 1941, when parts of China were under Japanese control. It “shared bitter hatred of the enemy”, wrote critic Shen Ji in 1985.
“Set in 1926, the film opens with a troupe of actors arriving at a spooky old theatre to put on a musical play,” wrote critic Derek Elley in 1999, when the film played at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy.
“The building is ‘haunted’ by the lonely figure of Song Danping, a once famous actor who had acid thrown in his face when his lover’s family opposed their affair.
“He’s waited years for another actor to come by to perform his masterpiece Hot Blood, and thus get his revenge on his persecutors.”
Song at Midnight was a critical and commercial success at the time of its release. “Maxu handled it with tremendous innovation. With this film, he became a famous director, and Jin Shan – who played the male lead – became a big-time star of the silver screen,” said a 1942 newspaper article, unearthed by Elley for the Udine festival.
“This gives an idea of how significant Song at Midnight was. Horror had never been used like this in film before, and it aroused major interest from audiences, breaking all box-office records,” said the article.
Maxu, who had come to filmmaking via an interest in stage make-up, had built a solid foundation for his work. “Another contributor to Song at Midnight’s success was the wholehearted support of progressive filmmakers,” wrote Shen.
“The cast featured the most famous actors of the time. In charge of make-up was the famous Xin Hanwen, who went to extraordinary pains to design the make-up for the scenes where Song Danping is scarred, experimenting over and over by applying scalding hot wax to his own face.”
Maxu moved to Hong Kong later in 1949, and made films for a variety of companies, but none matched the success of Song at Midnight. He was knocked down by a car and killed in 1961.
The Phantom Lover
Ronny Yu’s version of Maxu’s story, The Phantom Lover, impressed audiences when it opened in 1995, mainly because of the gorgeous sets and costumes. Yu built a full-size opera house in Beijing Film Studio, and the lavish construction brings a decadent grandeur to the proceedings.
“The sets are the real star of the show,” this journalist wrote in a Post review at the time. “Yu mixes Gothic flourishes straight out of Hammer horror films with Chinese images.
“The shots of horse-drawn carriages hurtling down dimly lit streets are pure Hammer horror, yet fit surprisingly well with the Chinese setting. Yu has successfully transported the Gothic atmosphere of a classic horror film to a Chinese setting.”
Yu’s adaptation features Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing as Song Danping, now depicted as an avant-garde Western-style opera star who falls in love with an innocent girl, played by Wu Chien-lien, who was then at the peak of her fame.
As in Song at Midnight, the relationship incurs the wrath of the girl’s father, who throws acid in Song’s face and burns down his opera house to keep him away from his daughter.
The disfigured Song hides himself in the ruined opera house and plots his revenge. Then a group of young performers move into the ruins, and Song makes a bargain with one of them – he will teach the young man how to become a star, if he promises to care for his lost love, who has gone mad with grief.
Yu excised the politics of Song at Midnight and played up the romance. “At that time, the traditional Chinese really looked down on stage performers,” Yu told this journalist in an interview just before the film’s release. “Their status was as a low as a whore’s. So my film is actually more of a tragic romance.”
“At the start, you get two young lovers who think they can live in a world detached from the reality of their situation. But tragedy strikes, and we look at how they can sustain their unconditional love.
“It’s really about whether [the character played by] Leslie will ever find enough courage to face his beloved in his disfigured form,” Yu said.
Yu was inspired by both Song at Midnight and The Phantom of the Opera. “Song at Midnight was a combination of the 1930 The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Romeo and Juliet,” he said. “When I saw it, I thought it was brilliant. My film is mainly based on this version of the story.”
Yu also noted that he was a fan of previous phantom films like the 1930 Universal Studios classic, and Brian DePalma’s crazy rock version, Phantom of the Paradise. “But my film is my own. The only similarity is the opera setting,” he said.
The songs were important in Maxu’s film – which spawned a popular hit – and Yu continued that idea in his own version. He felt that the role of Song should be played by a musician, and Cheung, who had appeared in a dramatic role in Yu’s wildly operatic The Bride with White Hair films, was the natural choice, he said.
Cheung, who had retired from singing at the time, composed two songs for the film. Yu said that writing and performing the songs for the film had led Cheung to think about restarting his Cantopop career.
Cheung put in a typically sensitive performance as the disfigured musician. “Cheung is effective in the role, occasionally slipping back into pop idol mode to belt out some power ballads,” said the Post review. “He brings his natural sensitivity to the role and thankfully avoids the temptation to ham things up.”
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the industry.