Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Song at Midnight (1937)

Director: Ma-Xu Weibang

It’s a motion picture from the Far East that many times feels a bit rough, but seems very similar to American made films. It can be a bit strange, but is at the same time very familiar. It is produced in the far off land of China in the mid-1930s, but it finally audiences will realize that they are watching a feature inspired by a familiar story to popular culture of the western world. Song at Midnight is a film based on the popular story by Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera, which had far transcended into other mediums since its release. Not a direct adaptation of the story, or the infamous Lon Chaney picture that followed it, Song at Midnight does share inspirations from the classic Universal horror picture, while expanding the realm of Chinese cinema which was still in an infancy stage compared to European or American counterparts.

Song at Midnight is a Chinese horror/drama of a scarred man that “haunts” an old theater and his determination to win back the love of his life, set lightly to the background of revolutionary era China. A struggling actor/singer Sun Xiaoou (Chau-Shui Yee) is aided in his struggling performance by a haunting figure of the once great singer Song Dangping (Shan Jin). Song reveals himself and recounts his tragic tale of being grotesquely disfigured for beliefs as a revolutionary, deciding to hide himself from his once great love, played by Ping Hu, instead of stowing his ugly new figure and break her heart. It had been ten years since that tragic day and Song decides to use Sun to console his love. First made to believe Song’s soul lives in Sun, Sun reveals the truth to her before Song exacts his revenge on those that destroyed his life, riding the region of its warlords that brought so much anguish to him and the surrounding area.

The film, perhaps because of the cultural and language barrier, begins as a rather confusing picture before finding its grounding in the Phantom of the Opera-inspired tale and the tragic love story it turns out to be.  The production quality is lacking at times and the acting is sufferable and over the top in many cases, however the picture was produced at a different time and place than Hollywood. The feature does showcase glimmers of inspired creativity that manifests the care it took to produce the film and would stand as a notable point in Chinese cinema compare to other films produced within the country at the time.

Director Ma-Xu Weibang had been making films for years in his native China, but generates his big break here with Song at Midnight. Obviously inspired by the likes of Phantom of the Opera and horror films from America, most notably of the expressionistic inspired films of Universal Pictures, Song at Midnight is thought of as the first Chinese horror film. Stylistic choices are clearly results of his fondness to the films from west. Despite lacked timing in acting and editing, which at times makes the picture difficult to watch, these moments of inspiration in good filmmaking shine out in the final feature.

The original story would be heavily changed to fit Chinese customs, most notably the phantom in this story, Song Dangping, aides the performance of a male actor as females were not considered major stage actors at that time. However, there are still is heavy romantic tales that the story centers around, similar to the likes of the originating tale.

Initially Chinese critics panned the picture for being too western in style, alienating local audiences, however local political ideas shared in the film and its growing appeal would find itself a sequel in 1941. The story of Song at Midnight would be remade twice and even inspired other versions of Phantom of the Opera to use the twist of the Phantom being created from an acid burn, as seen in this picture, instead of the disfigurement being something since birth.

Song at Midnight would be a new step in Chinese filmmaking that made it a bit more western in style and eventually found praise widely in the history of cinema for the country. The years would not be kind to the film, falling into deterioration and out of site of audiences until 1998 when the picture was rediscovered and played at many film festivals all over the world. Commonly hailed as the first horror film in Chinese cinema and one the finest films ever in the country’s industry, Song at Midnight is an important note for Chinese film history.

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