Saturday, January 28, 2017

PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE (2016)

In the Chinese original, the title of Raymond Yip's picture is something like "Fascination of the Devil." At least that's what Google Translate gives me. So the film can be forgiven for opening with a multitude of spooks to beg the question, "Shouldn't that be Phantoms of the Theatre?" Eventually, however, something close to a traditional Phantom figure emerges, first masked, then revealed as disfigured. He's promoting the career of a movie actress, Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin) who happens to be making a picture in the theater he haunts, which will also host the film's premiere. The premiere will be a private one for a warlord (Simon Yam), whose son Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) directed the film. Father and son have issues, the most profound being that the warlord has swooped in to take Meng Sifan away from the director. Both are being manipulated, reluctantly, by the actress as part of the "Phantom's" revenge plot. Father and son, you see, were in the audience when the Phantom's acrobat troupe botched their big Shanghai debut, the lead female being distracted by the warlord's horndog attentions. That night, a fire gutted the backstage area, killing all but two of the acrobat family: the disfigured Phantom and, as we learn eventually, the young Meng Sifan, who was outside shoplifting at the crucial moment. Our Phantom blames the warlord and intends to see him burn for his old sins, as others who've entered the haunted theater have burned since the start of the picture.


Past and present converge in a haunted Shanghai theater


Phantom is a film in love with the glamor of old movies, be they Chinese, French (the young director studied in Paris) or Hollywood. It's as much about how a filmmaker can cast a spell on himself as it is about the Phantom's quasi-supernatural revenge plot. The supernatural aspect of it, highlighted by special effects, apparently can be written off as figments of suggestible imaginations, since the director's platonic lady doctor friend (Huang Hung in a role reminiscent of Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo) figures out a natural cause for victims' deaths by internal combustion. Nevertheless, Phantom is haunted by the supernatural at the level of myth. The director falls in love as much with the character Meng Sifan plays on screen, a ghostly beauty in a tragic romance, as he does with what he thinks is the real woman. His tragic romance redeems what's largely a conventional melodrama with little to really scare audiences.


The film within the film poignantly parallels the heroine's character arc. In Gu Weibang's story, the ghost must eventually cut ties with the living by drinking a special brew. In Raymond Yip's film Meng Sifan must finally cut ties with her tragic past, but that extends to cutting ties with the director and stepping back out into the world to start a life of her own at last. There, rather than with the murder mystery, is the heart of the movie.

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Iphon Hema said...
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