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Issue #154a HOME E-mail: mail@dighkmovies.com BACK ISSUES April 7th, 2003

The Phantom Lover
(1995; Mandarin Films/Sil-Metropole Company)

A Masterpiece
Highly Recommended
Very Good
Marginal Recommendation
Not Recommended
Definitely Not Recommended

Cantonese: Ye boon goh sing
Mandarin: Ye ban ge sheng
English: Midnight Song

Several key personnel from THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (including star Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, director Ronny Yu Yan-tai, cinematographer Peter Pau Tak-hei, production designer Eddie Ma Poon-chiu, and editor David Wu Tai-wai) were reunited for this resplendent HK/Singapore co-production, lensed in Beijing. A remake of Ye ban ge sheng, first produced in the 1930's and, then, again in 1961 by Shaw Brothers, THE PHANTOM LOVER is a variation on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, inserting the primary elements from Gaston Leroux's creation into the framework of an archetypal Chinese romantic tragedy. In execution, it engenders both intoxicating grandeur and poignant emotion: a near-perfect merger of classical narrative and state-of-the-art production techniques. In 1936, an impoverished theatre troupe sets itself up in the burned-out remains of a once opulent opera house, to stage their new production. The young lead singer, Wei Qing (Huang Lei, from Chen Kaige's LIFE ON A STRING), learns that the site had previously been the toast of the 1920's dramatic circuit, thanks to the magnetism of its architect and star, Song Danping (Cheung), who had accrued tremendous fame performing the lead in a Mandarin musical adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." Danping fell deeply in love with Du Yuyan (Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien), the daughter of an industrialist who had already promised her hand in marriage to the wealthy Zhao family, in order to build a factory. When Yuyan rebelled against her parents' wishes and tried to elope with Danping, her father (Pau Fong) had his servants (including the film's action choreographer, Phillip Kwok Tsui) disfigure him with acid and set the theatre ablaze. With Danping presumed dead, Yuyan was then forced to wed Zhao's sadistic son (co-writer Szeto Wai-cheuk), a punishment which eventually drove her insane. During every full moon, she returns to the crumbling auditorium to hear Danping perform the love song that he had composed especially for her. While investigating the theatre's rickety catwalks, Qing discovers that Danping survived the conflagration and his hooded spectre is soon giving the lad vocal coaching, so that he can perform the part of Romeo. However, Danping's motives are not wholly altruistic: he utilizes the youth as his substitute, in order to placate the deluded Yuyan by comforting her anguish, while also shielding her from his grotesque visage. When the Zhao family becomes aware of the phantom's presence, they set about to eliminate both him and Yuyan once and for all.

Although BRIDE proved him an adept technician, director Ronny Yu never allowed the project's action and special effects to overshadow his star-crossed protagonists. He has successfully repeated this approach here and is aided, as before, by strong central performances. Leslie Cheung makes an ideal Danping, narcissistic but compassionate enough, during his romantic interludes with Yuyan, to retain viewer sympathy. While a suitably menacing phantom, Cheung is less psychotic than his cinematic predecessors, threatening but never intentionally killing anyone (no chandelier sequence here) and the actor is let down somewhat by a substandard make-up job. Considering Cheung's much-praised turn as the troubled, female-playing vocalist in FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE (1993), it would have been a real innovation to stage the musical drama as a traditional Peking Opera, but his singing here is very good. Since her debut in A MOMENT OF ROMANCE (1990), Jacklyn (formerly Jacqueline) Wu has often played women whose idealistic outlooks on love and humanity are out of touch with the worlds they inhabit, invariably contributing to their ruin. Her ability to inhabit such roles, without falling victim to their inherent melodramatic pitfalls, engenders audience empathy, and that quality (further accentuated by her delicate beauty) makes Wu the perfect leading lady for this sort of romantic tragedy. The pair make an affecting couple and, if their destiny is not entirely satisfying in a logical sense, it is an emotionally pleasing one. The 1936 sequences (about 70% of the running time) were shot on color stock, but printed down to near monochrome. Intermittent applications of color appear, ranging from a lantern's subtle, incandescent glow to the pale red of lipstick, growing more plentiful and pronounced as the film progresses. In a simple but impressive take on the norm, the flashbacks unfold in full, lustrous hues and the effect is stunning, particularly the deep scarlet of Yuyan's bridal chamber, the myriad fabrics and floral bouquets on display in the opera house, and the crimson glow that heralds the towers of orange flame engulfing the theatre. The film is also noteworthy as the first Chinese production to be mixed in the DTS Stereo process. THE PHANTOM LOVER was shot with sync sound, and the performers delivering their lines in Mandarin, and that is certainly the best version to see.

Cover art courtesy Tai Seng.

Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien in a publicity pose. Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Cheung. Image courtesy Tai Seng.

Jacklyn Wu. Image courtesy Tai Seng.
DVD menus courtesy Tai Seng.
Tai Seng #78324 (U.S. Label)

Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0, 1.0

Sync Sound Mandarin and Dubbed Cantonese and English Language Tracks

Optional English Subtitles

32 Chapters Illustrated in the Menu With Animated Frame Grabs

Letterboxed (2.30:1)

Coded for ALL Regions

Macrovision Encoded

102 Minutes

Contains mild violence

Australia: M 15+ (Medium Level Violence, Low Level Sex Scene)
British Columbia: M (Occasional Violence, Suggestive Scenes)
Finland: K-12
Hong Kong: II
Ontario: AA
Singapore: PG [Passed With Cuts]

THE PHANTOM LOVER has always been a difficult film for non-Chinese speaking audiences to enjoy on video as the subtitles are practically microscopic. This was even the case on the 1998 HK DVD from Fitto Mobile, which was derived from the same theatrical master. Tai Seng's domestic DVD not only offers highly legible (and optional) subs but also a wealth of extras, giving the film the royal treatment with a pleasing two-disc special edition. Disc 1 is dual-layered, offering a 2.30:1 rendering of the film that drops a sliver from the left in comparison to the Fitto edition (another HK DVD has since been issued by WideSight, likely derived from that same low-grade master). However, in addition to the tiny subs, the old version was plagued by an extremely annoying flaw: every time a shot changed, the splice line was visible at either the top or the bottom of the frame, a distraction that is thankfully absent from the new DVD. Visually, the two look notably different during the present-day sequences: the old master adds a dark sepia tone to this footage, while the new one is closer to black and white. Both approaches have their merits but the U.S. disc more accurately conveys the look intended by the filmmakers and also looks sharper, with more detailed contrasts. Tai Seng’s colors are somewhat more reserved but clearly more accurate and their disc also provides English lyrics for the various songs, which were previously offered only in Chinese (the original English translation of the dialogue was excellent and did not need to be re-done). The source material has some light speckling but no major problems. The American DVD also offers 5.1 sound options. Both the original sync sound Mandarin version and the Cantonese dub are so formatted and boast a wonderfully expansive and enveloping presence, greatly enhancing both the music and the atmosphere. There is also a music-only channel in 2.0, a dreadful monaural English dub in 1.0, and two commentaries.

From left to right: Leslie Cheung, Ronny Yu, Peter Pau.
Above images courtesy Tai Seng. Above images have ZOOM links. Click on picture for larger image.

On track 1, director Yu relates how the project came about; the language difficulties brought about by the film's international production team; the decision behind presenting all of the flashbacks in full color, while giving the rest of the story that heavily desaturated appearance; and that budget concerns dictated that all of the sets, except for the elaborate opera house, could only be one-sided. He also mentions the 1930s version of the film, which featured a subplot about the fight against the Japanese invaders occupying China, and reveals that the burn make-up on Leslie Cheung’s phantom was much tamer than he wanted but there was no time left to come up with something else. On track 2, cinematographer Peter Pau Tak-hei (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) spends more time on technical matters, like camera equipment, set-ups, and Eddie Ma Poon-chiu's art direction. There is some repetition between the two channels but both are worthwhile and Yu speaks throughout, avoiding the long gaps heard in his earlier commentaries. Disc 2 is single-layered and includes trailers, scrolling cast and crew bios, a collection of stills, and a "picture gallery" (47 minutes) that is a series of video grabs from the movie accompanied by Chris Babida's soundtrack. The main feature is a "Making Of" television documentary presented in three ways: Cantonese (24 minutes), a Mandarin dub with Chinese subtitles (also 24 minutes), and a mixture of English and Cantonese with Chinese subtitles during the former segments and English subtitles during the latter (26 minutes). The third version is obviously the choice for Westerners and it also includes English language interviews with Yu and Pau. The program features a few clips from the movie's 1936 sequences presented in conventional color, which makes for an interesting comparison with the drastically altered appearance they were given in the final product. Surprisingly, there is no mention anywhere on either disc of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though Yu can be seen in the documentary wearing a baseball cap bearing the logo for the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version. Some very attractively designed menus (accompanied by musical cues) round out a reverent and satisfying package.

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