Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Phantom of the Theatre: Gothic Romance, 1930s Shanghai-Style

It is 1930s Shanghai, but Gu Weibang’s decision to shoot his debut ghost story film inside a notoriously haunted movie theater is worthy of William Castle or Blumhouse. His up-and-coming leading lady Meng Sifan and her elegant print dresses certainly looks like they were inspired by Ruan Lingyu. However, Meng has a dark past that is distinctly her own in Raymond Yip’s Phantom of the Theatre (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Well Go USA.

Thirteen years ago, a tragic fire in the movie palace killed a family of traveling acrobats. Ever since, the theater has sat vacant due to reported supernatural activity. The purse-snatcher who internally combusts after taking refuge inside during the prologue just further stokes its reputation. Nevertheless, Gu is determined to film his ghostly romance there, even though his lover Phyllis Fei Lisi is the coroner autopsying the many corpses found within.

Inevitably, Gu falls for Meng, heedless of the potential repercussions with sleazy producer Tang Shirao, who only funded the film to lust after the popular ingénue. Fortunately, the Phantom will do them a solid, killing off Tang, along with the lead actor. Of course, the show must go on, so Gu will be forced to step in and film all those love scenes with Meng himself. She might even be falling for him too, but her sinister connection to the Phantom rather complicates matters.

As a Mainland production (as opposed to a Hong Kong ghost story), Phantom was duly required to have the Scooby-Do-style explanation for any and all supernatural goings on, but that is still in keeping with the tradition of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom. Frankly, viewers can see the echoes of many cinematic influences, but Yip purees them with panache. In fact, there is something refreshingly old fashioned about the film. The ambiance is evocatively gothic, the sets are baroquely detailed, and the costumes are fab. Scampering through the ostensibly haunted set is just good fun, reminding fans of the old dark house movies of yesteryear.

Ruby Lin also takes a real star turn as tragically seductive Meng. Chaste yet smoldering, she conveys volumes through a silent look. Tony Yang’s Gu looks rather awkward and gawky opposite her, but who wouldn’t? Fortunately, Jing Gang-shan goes all in chewing the scenery and venting his spleen as the titular haunter. Huang Huan is also quite charismatic and ultimately rather touching as Fei, the bizarrely endearing pathologist. Surprisingly though, the compulsively watchable Simon Yam’s sly fox persona does not feel quite right for Gu Mingshan, the rookie director’s estranged warlord father.

Loaded with spooky trappings, Phantom looks great. With its nostalgic heart and little on-screen violence to speak of, it would be an appropriate Halloween selection to view with older parents (but the scenes establishing the acrobats’ fate might be too intense for young children). Recommended for fans of tragic gothic romance and 1930s style, Phantom of the Theatre is now available on DVD and digital platforms, from Well Go USA.