“Chinese Filmmaker, Wai Takes Inspiration From Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema In “Phantom Of The Theater”
“The Phantom Of The Theater” seemingly takes place in 1940’s China, I say this because it is not clear whether it’s actually set in the that era, or that the filmmakers are just so romanced by the grandeur and glitz of Hollywood; circa the 1940’s. Either way this movie is brimming with the costumes, automobiles and more importantly the pomp and circumstance those movies of old brought with them.
Well before my time, going to the cinema was not just something to do on a lazy Saturday afternoon or a good excuse to get to third base with your best gal on a Friday night, no, in the 40’s going to the cinema meant your putting on your best duds and her best gown, trimmed with pearls and a spritz or two from that expensive bottle of perfume he bought her for special occasions.
That is the kind of cinema that influenced Wai Man Yip to bring the vibrant colors and grand set pieces to his new film. Now while certainly American style wardrobes and big automobiles permeate almost every frame, Wai utilizes a technique seen often in Chinese cinema. The technique I am referring to is a vibrant color pallet, from the long red and yellow curtains to the traditional colorful and ornate dress of the traveling acrobats and our main character’s warlord father.
The story is subtitled for us Yanks and while having to read the lines of dialogue translated into perfect English grammar may have at first given me the impression of formality, as the film continued that was by design. You see this is a old tale of a revered, powerful and overbearing father and his scorned son.
The story opens with a young filmmaker, Gu Weibang played by actor Tony Yo-ning Yang, that has just returned to the city from a stint at film school in Paris. Somewhere around his thirteenth birthday, Weibang left home and his father for school after the tragic suicide of his mother, HIS mother, but his father’s fifth wife!
This story seems to have origins in archaic Chinese society where it was common for men of stature to have a harem of wives. Commonplace or not having more than one wife never works out like it does in the man’s fantasy world. One of the women will get jealous or mistreated by the other jealous wives and undoubtedly something nasty happens. This tale is no different.
Weibang has his sights set on a palatial yet purportedly haunted theater in the center of town. The owner has nearly lost everything and as the theater has sat dark and shuttered for a baker’s dozen number of years, the prospect of this young man and his film crew filming there makes him giddy.
The owner is an upstanding sort of fella it seems, unlike most other property owners on this side of the world, when he asks, deal nearly in hand, “You must be aware of the rumors of the theater’s haunting, why would you want to shoot here?” Our fearless director replies, “While I am making a film about a ghost story, I don’t believe in such nonsense.”
In true Hollywood style, Weibang prostrates himself in front of film queens all over town looking for his leading lady and well as financing for his grand entrance into the Chinese film world. When all seems lost a young starlet just making a name for herself accepts the role, a rich benefactor with ulterior motives steps in and filming begins at the haunted theater.
The fact that the story is set in a cavernous theater makes all of the-over -the top sets and melodramatic acting seem to work. The actor that plays Weibang, with his sharp suits, fedora’s, and exasperated “good guy” presence casts shades of one of America’s beloved actors from the 40’s and 50’s, Gregory Peck.
Even when Weibang and his starlet Meng Sifan, played by beautiful porcelain faced Ruby Lin, are out in the streets of the city, it still seems as if they are in the fantasy world of a play at the nefarious theater. The film, while it has dialogue is better told by the changing colors from scene to scene, even changing colors within the same scene. This is called cinematic language and is used to great affect here.
The film follows a beautiful yet fairly predictable course. There are a few dastardly spirits that dispatch a few of the more unpleasant characters, quickly so that the director of the on-screen tale must is forced to become the leading man, so that the project can continue. The special affects are on the subtle side, as to not clash with dream like romance of the film’s main story.
The themes here are of revenge, love, loss and redemption. While the film won’t be for everyone, true cinephiles will be taken with the majesty and technique of “Phantom of The Theater”
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