This week, we were intending to bring you a review of THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI. Some technical difficulties arose making that impossible. Instead, we are presenting another of our articles from the Alamo Cinema Massacre column Trista and I wrote for the Cinema Knife Fight website.
After we saw the heart wrenching biopic CHRISTINE (2016) in theaters, Trista and I would not get another chance to review another picture we saw in theaters together for quite some time. In fact, our paired trips to the cinema in general were in limited supply. This was due to a complication with Trista’s pregnancy that resulted in her being on modified bed rest. Although it was a major setback in our ability to consume media via the cinema, the column continued nevertheless. I would catch occasional pictures at the cinema to review and we would both be able to watch flicks available via DVD or streaming. Since we don’t have a television, relying instead on a projector, we got the chance to replicate the theater experience to some degree without leaving home. These are the sacrifices folks sometimes have to make.
The first film we watched in this manner for review purposes was a bit of a disappointment. Now, Trista and I are both avowed fans of Asian genre films. Classic and current, we are happy to give them a watch. When I was given the chance to program a film for the local Alamo Drafthouse’s Friday night horror series “Graveyard Shift,” I was thrilled to present Miike Takashi’s AUDITION (1999).
So, we were not put off by the film’s stylistic choices, its moodiness, or its subtitles. Visually, THE PHANTOM OF THE THEATER (2016) is an intriguing picture. However, it is also an odd one in terms of tone and its handling of supernatural subject matter. Once we got to talking about it and thinking about the piece, we both realized this was likely due to China’s censorship board (SAPPRFT), which has taken hard stances against supernatural horror and the fantastic in the last decade or so. Delving into the picture a second time—something we would not have an easy chance to do at a cinematic screening—we had a much different appreciation for it.
And now, we present our review for PHANTOM OF THE THEATER, which we hope you enjoy.
Alamo Cinema Massacre screens: PHANTOM OF THE THEATER
By: Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud
Synopsis: A thriller set in the booming film industry of 1930s Shanghai, PHANTOM OF THE THEATER (2016) presents a pair of young people opposing powers beyond their control. A haunted theater, which has caused people to spontaneously burst into flames, strikes aspiring director Gu Weibang (Tony Yo-ning Yang) as the perfect place to set and shoot a ghost story. Young actress Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin) takes the part of the tragic lead in Weibang’s film, a decision which is soon tied to her experiencing numerous visions of a horrific nature. The past comes to haunt the cast and crew of Weibang’s picture, however, both in the form of malevolent spirits, mysterious figures in strange kabuki masks, and a Weibang’s warlord father (a sneering and gleefully scenery chewing Simon Yam). These adversaries are each tied to the theater’s dreadful history, and only by delving into that history themselves will SiFan and Weibang find the roots of the chilling mystery, uncover secrets about each other, and perhaps lay old spirits to rest.
I was not sure what to expect with director Wai Man Yip’s PHANTOM OF THE THEATER (2016). A viewing of the picture finds this Chinese production running on a lot of genre interests. Is it a ghost story? A weird stalker/slasher picture? A haunted love story? In fact, it is all these and more.
The film opens with a teaser, where a thief running from the police finds his way into the dust choked palatial theater. There, he encounters the terrifying sight of accusatory spirits pulling themselves from nearby reflective surfaces. He screams in utter terror and soon enough bursts into flames. Sarcastic coroner Dr. Fei Lisi (Huang Huan) is stumped by the crime but searching for a rational answer, while police inspector Ma Rulong (Li Xiao-Chuan) is certain the culprit is ghosts.
Cut to the leads introduced at a gala offering. SiFan is the new It Girl of the film world, and Weibang is struggling to get his script read. When Weibang helps SiFan get away from a grabby, malicious producer, a friendship is formed and SiFan’s interest gets Weibang’s film into production.
Of course, the theater soon becomes ground zero for weird and horrible happenings featuring combustion, ghosts, prophetic nightmares, and sinister or homicidal figures.
The first thing to say about PHANTOM OF THE THEATER is that the production value is high. Here is a visually engaging experience. The film is historically set but it uses no sepia tones or filters to dull the colors. The reds are vibrant, the greens are lush, and the blues blazing. Ghostly elements have a touch of the same CGI cartoonish flashiness seen in flicks like GHOSTBUSTERS (2016), giving them an eerie but not necessarily terrifying presence. At least, it’s only eerie until those figures then burst into spooky flames, seeming to melt away from the inside like overheated film stock. The costuming is great, the set design is appealing, and the images themselves are difficult to look away from.
Where the movie stumbles is in its storytelling. Particularly in terms of tone.
Working from a script by Jingling Li, Manfred Wong, and Mei Yuan Yang, director Wai Man Yip’s film draws from numerous sources, both literary and cinematic. The result is a salad bar thriller, with elements of one of the earliest literary slasher characters, Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” operating alongside Dario Argento’s OPERA (1987) in a plot straight out of the weird menace pulps of the 1930s.
By weird menace, what I refer to is: stories that culminate in exposition that reveals to the audience how events, which seemed to be supernatural, actually have a rational (though not necessarily realistic) explanation. Some might call this the Scooby Doo plot, but it is actually derives from the formula for stories written to order for old pulp magazines like “Terror Tales” and “Spicy Mystery Stories” by writers like Hugh B. Cave and Henry Kuttner.
The effect is a bit jarring, as the movie jumps through several story tones before it reaches its conclusion. I found this jumbled experience a tad awkward. What were your thoughts on the picture’s tone, Trista?
Billed as a thriller in the Hong Kong movie database, PHANTOM OF THE THEATER seems to go through many tonal shifts. As you mentioned, the beginning has a classic horror-movie opening with an arguably sinful man combusted by vengeful ghosts. We then establish Shanghai at the height of its cultural shine in the 1930s, covering the glitter and glamour of the movie industry. Then we see the movie production in the haunted theater, carrying on despite warring personalities and ghostly sabotages. A romance between Gu Weibang and Meng Sifan begins and gives us a love-triangle romantic comedy foiled by General Gu Mingshan (famous Chinese actor Simon Yam Tat-Wah). Finally, the question of the ghostly saboteurs is answered. Western audiences raised on Disney might be surprised to learn that the movie does not end with a wedding. I certainly was.
Actually, it’s complicated love geometry! Gu Weibang starts out the film as a boyfriend to coroner Fei Lisi, who comes to realize before long how attached her boyfriend is to another woman . . . But I digress. You were talking tonal shifts.
The most jarring tonal shift in my opinion, however, was the strong presence of the supernatural in the beginning of the movie, followed by a dwindling amount of influence until nonexistence by the end. Shanghai in the beginning seems a town suffused in magic and possibility, and the return to drab reality was highly disappointing.
Actually, I am intrigued by the idea of a magical Shanghai getting a dose of drab reality. In fact, SiFan’s final walk through the streets as the music swells is probably one of the least colorful parts of the film. Drab reality, indeed.
Although the screen story feels like a jumble, I suspect this was done purposefully. In fact, I suspect the filmmakers were trying to play with supernatural elements and ideas that might not have been allowed by China’s entertainment censorship board (the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television or SAPPRFT). About ten years ago, the current Administration’s predecessor, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), had put a ban on supernatural elements in the films altogether. Whether this ban still exists is questionable, however, PHANTOM OF THE THEATER manages to sneak past these demands by showing us ghosts, and then providing “rational” explanations.
Taken from this perspective, there is a playful subversive quality to the material. In fact, one of the crew in the picture specifically asks Weibang about getting a ghost story past the censors, and Weibang’s theory can be summed up as “spirits are a part of our history, so I am simply telling a story about history.” The screenplay and direction makes pointed jabs at oppressive government figures, a military dictator in the film instead of the communist regime currently in power, as well as using a story structure that is safe. Here we have an operatic tale of love and revenge, where all deaths and crimes can ultimately be traced to human deviants. It is a way to have your transgressive horror iconography and be able to play in a repressive environment.
However, reading this as a person versed more in American values and culture, my first experience was less appreciative of the nuances here. A second viewing gave me a better appreciation for the piece. As John Lennon opined about his song “Imagine”, so long as it has a hummable tune you can say whatever you like with the lyrics. The film has eye candy galore serving as the glamorous wrapping around some biting political and cultural commentary.
This story is clearly aimed at an international market – if you watched it without subtitles, you’d still be able to figure out what was going on in almost every scene. I appreciate the highly visual storytelling style. In the moment, the story always makes sense. It’s only afterward that the seams start showing, and the tonal shifts cause questions. It’s not desirable to awaken from this beautiful dream.
Also, OMG the production value here must have been astronomical. The costumes are lush and opulent; some of the dresses the ladies wear look so heavily beaded they could double as armor. The sets combine elements from European gothic tropes and castles with more traditional Chinese colors and symbols. Check out Meng SiFan’s apartment for a unique marriage of styles along with nouveau-riche over-the-top décor – this is Shanghai after a trip through Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. While rebellion against aristocratic excesses is definitely a theme, I appreciated that Western influences were not universally painted as deplorable… though only the rich could afford most Western things.
As a child the ‘Weird Menace’ genre always saddened me, because it seemed to posit a beautiful world of imagination and possibility that was subsumed by drab, corruptive reality. PHANTOM OF THE THEATER is certainly appropriate for children who are patient enough to follow the storyline and would enjoy this glimpse into adult worlds, but the draining of magic by the end is certainly a downer.
IMO, come for the ghosts, stay for the drama, and write your own ending in your head. J
Any final words, Daniel?
I think you hit the nail on the head. This film is visually great. I only wish it had the storytelling chops to back it up. As far as recent “Phantom of the Opera” riffs go, it’s one of the better films out there, but that’s comparing it to a bar that is low enough to be part of the floor.
As Netflix or other streaming service offerings go, watching PHANTOM OF THE THEATER is not a waste of time. Unfortunately, it’s not as rewarding as it might have been with stronger scripting.
PHANTOM OF THE THEATER is available via streaming services such as NetFlix.
“Movie Monday: Phantom of the Theater” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud. This article incorporates elements from “Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: Phantom of the Theater” which is copyright © 2017 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud