The Shanghai French Concession formally ended in 1943, when Vichy relinquished their authority to the puppet government in Nanjing—not exactly a triumph over imperialism. Regardless, it remained one of the toniest districts in Shanghai for decades to come. It is exactly the sort of prestigious neighborhood that suits a well-heeled doctor like Gao Yuanyang. However, the former owner his new manor house was exponentially wealthier. There are secrets in the house that personally relate to Gao’s family and the masked ripper stalking the concession in David Shao’s The Revenge of the Phantom Knight (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Winter Film Awards in New York.
As soon as Gao’s wife Zhuang Jingwen crosses the threshold, she feels like she has been there before—because she has. It is pretty obvious Zhuang was one of the charges living in the nearby orphanage funded by the mysterious Lu Zeju, but she has repressed those memories, with the rather suspicious help of her husband’s drugs and powers of suggestion. However, her return inevitably prompts flashes of flashbacks. He too starts acting oddly soon after they move in, often disappearing at strange hours and compulsively skulking through the house.
At least Gao has an excuse to be out of the house when sleazy Chief Detective Liu Kuwen calls him in to consult on the murders attributed to the Phantom Knight (a.k.a. The Daredevil). Basically, the Phantom hunts his prey like the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow, but he uses a set of claw-like razors, much like Han the crimelord in the climax of Enter the Dragon. He is a relentless killer, who seems to be targeting people connected to the orphanage Lu funded, which would include Zhuang, whether she accepts it or not.
Phantom Knight is a charmingly melodramatic gothic horror film, in the best, retro way possible. We half expect to see the Scooby-Doo mystery gang drive in to pull the mask off the Phantom, revealing Old Man Smithers, who would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. There is all kinds of gaslighting, sneaking around graveyards, grudge-holding, searching for hidden treasure, and dangling off wind-swept cliff faces going on. Plus, the Phantom is pretty sinister looking. The evocative 1930s Shanghai setting also helps.
Qiao Qiao is terrific as the slowly more assertive Zhuang, while He Ruohe keeps us guessing as the Rochester/de Winter-like Gao. However, Liu Xiaolan steals scene after scene as Zhuang’s Velma Dinkley-esque former friend Li Sha with her earnest energy. Young Yang Yuxi is also admirably on-point and professional as Gao’s little daughter, Yingzi.
Shao unloads six or seven game-changing revelations on us during the eleventh hour, which is wholly in keeping with the gothic tradition. Frankly, the film looks quite polished, considering he had limited time and resources at his disposal. It might not be important art house cinema, but it is a lot of fun—so much so, it makes us crave a retrospective of recent Chinese horror and gothic-themed films. Recommended for fans who would appreciate a dark and stormy night in the French Concession, The Revenge of the Phantom Knight screens tomorrow night (2/26), as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.