(Cantoneseand Mandarin soundtrack)
A sumptuously mounted, full-bore musical melodrama, Ronny Yu’s “The Phantom Lover” is a sensory delight guaranteed to appeal to curio-seekers with a feel for pure cinema. Though best appreciated on the wide, wide screen, this Chinese reworking of “The Phantom of the Opera” would be useful pickup for specialist vid labels.
Pic is the third Sino version of the tale, following two made in Shanghai – Maxu Weibang’s way-out 1937 rendering (which spawned a 1941 sequel) and Yang Yanjin’s straighter 1985 movie, both known as “Midnight Song,” literal meaning of the Chinese title. Hong Kong director Yu has changed some of the surrounding plot and gone for melodrama in its literal meaning – a meld of song, music and drama that plays like a pure cinematic tone poem.
Story opens in 1936 with a theatrical troupe arriving at a massive, dilapidated theater on the outskirts of Beijing. The old caretaker tells how the pile was once owned by popular actor-impresario Song Danping (Leslie Cheung) but was burned down by his enemies 10 years ago, following Song’s illicit affair with Yunyan (Wu Chien-lien), promised to the son of a local big shot.
After this 40-minute flashback, story returns to the present as the scarred, wraith-like Song strikes up a secret relationship with one of the troupe, Wei Qing (Huang Lei), and coaches him in the score to his most popular musical, “Romeo and Juliet.” Song’s plan is to get the troupe to restage the work, expose his enemies and reunite with Yunyan, who’s since gone batty after fleeing her family.
Aside from the camp sight of diminutive Hong Kong actor-popster Cheung strutting around the stage in Elizabethan tights as Romeo, the movie’s main attraction is Eddie Ma’s eye-boggling design, from the huge auditorium (built at Beijing Film Studio) to sets like Song’s lair up in the flies, a Gothic folly of huge wheels, pendulous ropes and cobwebs. Yu, who proved his technical mastery with the 1993 swordplay extravaganza “The Bride With White Hair” (aka “Jiang-Hu: Between Love & Glory”), turns his camera loose with a dazzling array of cranes, swoops and widescreen tableaux that find a fitting echo in the catchy, romantic score by Chris Babida.
Performances by the mixed Hong Kong, Taiwanese (Wu) and mainland (Huang) cast are at the service of the direction. Pic actually plays better in its all-Mandarin version, rather than the mixed-dialect one (with dialogue in Cantonese but songs in Mandarin) unspooled at the London festival. The movie’s sound mix was done in Vancouver.