In 1936, a struggling Chinese theatrical troupe move into a creepy, crumbling theatre long since abandoned and shrouded in cobwebs. Eerie sounds and strange apparitions startle aspiring lead actor Wei Qing (Huang Lei), who persuades the caretaker to tell him the story of the man who built the theatre, the legendary star/singer-songwriter/impresario Song Dang Ping (Leslie Cheung). Song dazzled audiences and defied authorities with his daring operas, winning the heart of lovely Du Yunyuan (Jaclyn Wu) along the way. Unfortunately, Yunyuan’s parents want her to marry Zhao Jun (Roy Szeto Wai-Cheuk, also this film’s co-writer), son of government official Master Zhao (Bao Fang) and imprison her when she refuses. A letter for help fails to reach Song in time before Zhao’s minions throw quicklime on his face and set his theatre ablaze.
Back in the present day, the impoverished troupe struggle to draw crowds until Wei Qing receives a ghostly visitor: Song Dang Ping! Hideously disfigured and living as a phantom-like recluse in the bowels of his theatre, Song saves the day with his musical version of Romeo and Juliet. He even lends Wei Qing his voice when the young actor’s courage falters during their sell-out performance. In return, Wei Qing serves as his surrogate by protecting Yunyuan, who after years of being beaten and imprisoned, now wanders the streets a madwoman. But Zhao Jun re-enters the scene, now a high-ranking official with his sights set on Wei Qing’s girlfriend Xiao Hua (Tina Lau Tin-Chi). Is history destined to repeat itself?
Ronny Yu’s follow-up to The Bride with White Hair (1993) was this lavish horror-musical-romance, co-produced by the late, great Leslie Cheung. While its plot evokes The Phantom of the Opera, it is actually a remake of Song At Midnight (1937), a pioneering horror effort from Maxu Weibang. Aside from genre trappings like the spooky lair and Song’s hideous visage, Yu dials down the horror and amps up the opulence and romance. This might disappoint hardcore horror fans, but there is plenty else to dazzle the senses and engage the mind.
The first Hong Kong film to be shot in mainland China, Phantom Lover has an anti-authoritarian bent that somehow snuck past the censors. Both the film and its hero live to antagonise the staid, uptight elders, as embodied by Yunyuan’s parents and sundry ministers, corrupt policemen and officials out to abuse or exploit the young. The plot slowly develops into an examination of art and its relationship with performers, spectators and censors, as Song’s theatre becomes an abstract canvas upon which various characters project their fantasies. The struggling actors initially perform a nationalistic musical with forced jollity, but have no luck with the audience until Song lends them his “decadent” material. Chris Babida’s orchestral score is wonderful, although Leslie Cheung’s individual musical numbers are somewhat treacly, if not as nauseous as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s.
Beautiful production design by Eddie Ma is shot with a painterly eye by master cameraman Peter Pau, both regular collaborators with Yu alongside editor David Wu. The film showcases Yu’s ingenious use of colour, with early scenes shot in near sepia tone, and lustrous colours for flashbacks to happier times. Gradually, scene by scene, colours begin to bleed back into the movie, the more popular the show becomes. Yunyuan’s wedding night, wherein Zhao Jun is so incensed his bride isn’t a virgin he brutalises her, is sheathed in communist reds. Leslie Cheung delivers another charismatic performance, relishing the heart-wrenching twists and turns of this tragic romance, and Jaclyn Wu is also excellent as she goes from childlike glee to a catatonic shell of her former self. Much loved in Asia, this is curiously unknown in the West and worthy of rediscovery.
Hong Kong-born director of action and fantasy. Began directing in the early 80s, and made films such as the historical actioner Postman Strikes Back (with Chow Yun-Fat), Chase Ghost Seven Powers and the heroic bloodshed flick China White. The two Bride with White Hair films – both released in 1993 – were hugely popular fantasy adventures, which helped Yu secure his first American film, the kids film Warriors of Virtue. Yu then helmed Bride of Chucky, the fourth and best Child's Play movie, the Brit action film The 51st State and the horror face-off Freddy Vs Jason. He later returned to Asia to helm the likes of Saving General Yang.