Saturday, April 9, 2011

Horror Comes to China in Song at Midnight

To say Song at Midnight (Ye Ban Ge Sheng) is completely unknown to contemporary film audiences would be an understatement. Yet, it is considered by many film historians to be one of the best Chinese films of the early sound era. There are many things to admire about this 1937 picture, but I would like to focus on its unusual take on a classic tale and its outstanding set design.
There have been many film adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (most notably the 1925 classic starring Lon Chaney), but Song at Midnight is perhaps the most son2unusual. Director and screenwriter Ma-Xu Weibang took a chance when he took liberties with Leroux’s original story, but his gamble paid off in the end. Instead of making the protégé a female opera singer, Ma-Xu decided that the story would work better if the singer were a male.  This really changes the story’s dynamics and it also ends up making the Phantom a more sympathetic character.
The story takes place at a run-down theater, where 10 years earlier the great opera singer Song Danping (Jin Shan) died.  Well, he didn’t really die, but everybody thinks he did. Evidently he has been skulking about making the locals believe opera_starthe place is haunted, while waiting for someone with a voice as gifted as his own to make into the greatest opera singer in China.  You see, Song was once a great singer, as well as a  revolutionary himself, but then he went and fell in love with Li Xiaoxia (Woo Ping), the daughter of a vindictive feudal lord and the would-be girlfriend of Tang Jun. This is also an important element of Ma-Xu adaptation, because in the 1930s China was in the midst of political turmoil. In the end, Tang throws nitric acid in Song’s face and he is horribly disfigured. He decides to let the world (besides a few friends), and Li, think he’s dead. And, so when Song hears the voice of Sun Xiao-au he has song-at-midnightthe “voice” and face he needs to make a comeback—and to bring love back to Li.  This is what makes the adaptation so unusual, Song and Sun are more like Cyrano and Christian from Cyrano de Bergerac than the original story of the Phantom and his case of unrequited love with Christine. Of course, things turn a bit nasty when Song learns that Sun has his own fiancee, but in the end, the Phantom of this story ends up being a hero, even though he doesn’t have a happy ending.  Quite simply, it is wonderfully woven story and such a great spin on the traditional Phantom tale.
Besides having a great story, Song at Midnight is also a visual treat. Ma-Xu was a not only a fan of Tod Browning’s Universal monster films, he was also an admirer of German universal_style_thumbexpressionism, most notably the works of Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene. Ma-Xu put together a film heavy with gothic atmosphere and haunting images. Ma-Xu sets the mood from the very beginning, by introducing the audience to the cobweb infested theater at night, and having a mysterious man lurking in the shadows. From that point on the scene is set and what follows truly comes from an artistic mind.
One of the most notable images is when we first see the Phantom’s face. Via flashback and with a handheld camera, we watch song1over Song’s shoulder as he slowly unrolls his bandages in front of a mirror.  Not only his reaction is captured in a pristine moment, but the framing of the reactions of those around him are superbly done as well. You can almost feel the recoil of those looking at his disfigured face. When he smashes the mirror it means so much more than just shattered glass all over the floor.
Overall, this is an interesting film to watch.  I’m always curious to see how certain genres took form in different countries.  Ma-Xu borrows heavily from the Universal monster films, especially the opening sequence and the finale with the torch wielding crowd. Of course, it is the reinterpretation of Gaston Leroux’s story that I find the most intriguing.  Sometimes when screenwriters make changes to original stories things don’t work out well, but in this case it was a refreshing retelling of a classic tale.


  1. Kim, I slept late this morning and am still in pajamas, but I feel like running out immediately and making a wild search for this movie! I'm exaggerating, of course -- first I'll look on Netflix and Youtube... Never heard of this movie, dying to see it, Phantom of the Opera is a favorite and I think I've seen every version available to me. This one sounds fascinating. Ma-Xu certainly does sound like China's Todd Browning.

    His take on Phantom sounds so intriguing. Like you, I don't usually like too much license taken with a classic story, but in the Phantom's case, it's OK. I guess that's because although I think the book itself was strangely below-par as a whole, Leroux's creation has been taken and improved upon by movies to make it a legendary character. I think Ma-Xu had a great idea for it.

    Your descriptions of the visuals are beautifully explained, and if I like this movie as much as I think I will, it will go right on the shelf with my other Universal Horror movies, Todd Browning masterpieces and every pitchfork-torch wielding-angry mob movies I have!

  2. Kim, you've been on a great roll recently. It's not that your reviews aren't always fun and informative, but your most recent ones have been exceptional. I was unfamiliar with SONG AT MIDNIGHT, but, like Becky, will be checking it out. I am also a big Universal horror fan and can see similarities just from the stills you included. What's interesting about this adaptation is that it precedes Universal's 1943 Claude Rains version in having acid being the cause of the Phantom's facial disfigurement. In both the novel and Chaney's 1925 version, the Phantom is disfigured from birth. So, it makes one wonder if Universal saw SONG OF MIDNIGHT and borrowed part of the premise. Having the Phantom's protege be a man is an intriguing variation and I can see how it would totally change the dynamics. What an interesting approach...and a fine film review.

  3. Well, I'm one who's never heard of this film and boy does it seem like something I should deftinitely see. But where to look? I'll try the usual sources first. Thanks so much for such a wonderful and eye-opening review. It's noon here and I'm still in sweatpants, doing the laundry. Ha!

  4. Excellent review! I agree that this is an overlooked classic of not only Chinese cinema, but horror cinema in general. In fact, it was one of the first films that I ever wrote about on my site. Here a link to the review:

    I would love to know what you think about my analysis.

    Oh, and you should probably mention that the film is available for free at

  5. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is not my favorite story, but it's been done so many times and I enjoy watching various interpretations. I like it when the filmmakers take liberties. It's great to see what works -- this movie, for instance -- or what doesn't -- Dario Argento's '98 version, where he made the Phantom an attractive man who controlled rats (!), was an unfortunate misfire. I love classic Chinese films because they're so hard to find and being able to see one is all the more special. It's nice that some of them are being released on DVD. Ronny Yu's remake, THE PHANTOM LOVER, is pretty good; it helps if you're a Leslie Cheung fan (I'm not). Kim, as always, a most excellent post, and the pictures are great, too!

  6. Kim, what a fascinating film you have shared with the Cafe! I have never heard of "Song at Midnight" but am very intrigued at its veriations on the source, especially for a film made in 1937. I really liked the photos you posted and think the blog comments have been excellent, too. Loved it!

  7. Glad you all liked the review.

    Rick, you might be right about Universal using the acid in their remake because of this film. They had a habit of borrowing from other people's good ideas.

    Sark, Argento had some strange ideas when it came to his films, so the Phantom controlling the rats seems right up his alley. Might be something to watch in the future. LOL