10/08/2017 – China: Song at Midnight (1937)
Directed by Ma-Xu Weibang
Any writer who tells you they still like their old work is delusional or lying. Even going back and looking at my write ups from two years ago is painful and I’m almost tempted to redo them all just out of desire for the topics within to be more complete. That being said, the fact that I was able to fit entire movie posts in the length of an intro from this year might indicate I’ve let this feature get a bit away from me into excessive length.
I bring this all up because two years ago my theme of the month was “World Edition”, devoting each day to a different nation’s cinema (38 in total). If you scroll to the bottom, you’ll find links to all the posts from that year, back when they were posted on the AVC (you’ll have to wait until another time when I feel like hating my old self even more for me to dig up my 2014 posts Editors Note: well that day came) and if you click on the link for the Partial Schedule for this year, I’ve included a list of every country I have covered to date including the one covered in 2016 on the second tab. One country I hadn’t covered though was China which on the surface seems like a peculiar admission since it is the world’s largest country and an ever-growing market for film. Sure, technically I did with The Eye, but as I detailed there, it’s not fair to conflate Hong Kong’s cinema with the rest of China, even post-reunification.
Chinese cinema dates to 1905 although many of their early films remain little known. A brief age in the 30s, where like Japan silent film held out longer than in the West, featuring a few notable titles such as the The Goddess (very good for a silent film), Street Angel, and our film today was brought to an end by the Japanese invasion in 1937. Film production slowed to a crawl and wasn’t able to rebound until the post war period. The back half of the 40s produced Spring in a Small Town and a few lesser known titles before the Communist Revolution again collapsed due to restrictions and government control. The Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted a decade, restricted production even more, preventing the Chinese film industry from experiencing the boom that British controlled Hong Kong enjoyed in that period.
Even the end of the Cultural Revolution wasn’t enough to resurrect the industry in the eyes of the world as the economic issues that hit Hong Kong’s industry, hit China too. That started to change in the late 80’s with Red Sorgham bringing the country the most critical attention it had received since the 40s. The 90s brought Chinese Cinema to critical acclaim with the releases of Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lanter, The Sory of Qiu Ju, Farewell My Concubine, and To Live. But still, the lack of state funding hampered production and it wasn’t until 2000 with the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that Chinese film became internationally popular. Other wuxia films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers followed along with coproductions with Hong Kong such as the later works of Stephen Chow and generally this is where they have had their most success at home and abroad even as international films crowd the Chinese box office. Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, Aftershock, and The Coffin in the Mountain have proven to be a few of the exceptions.
You’ll notice in all of this that I have listed exactly one horror film and it is over 80 years old. While the rest of Asia was seeing a golden age of horror in the 90s and 00s, China was conspicuous in their absence. Conspicuous until you consider the restrictions I alluded to before. While China at various times has pulled back on them, the one place it hasn’t relented is in horror. Censorship remains strong especially in the one area of horror that has dominated those modern Asian titles, ghosts. Unable to depict ghosts and held back by restrictions that make 70s American TV movies seem controversial, it’s no surprise that what few horror movies made there are little seen and even less regarded. 1988’s Hong Kong coproduction Men Behind the Sun (which is controversial to say the least) is just about the best you’re gonna find in this regard. It’s sad but unlikely to change any time soon.
Song at Midnight has the distinction of both being the first Chinese horror film and the most famous. It is also a loose remake of The Phantom of the Opera and as stated in that review, has itself been remade three times more as a film and once as a TV series. It also had a sequel (which info for is near impossible to track down) and until 1998 both were presumed lost. The film is begging for an upgraded version as the print on Youtube (and to the best of my knowledge on the expensive decade old DVDs as well) is worn, dark, frames pop up at times, the subtitles are of highly questionable quality, and they can’t be bothered to translate the onscreen writing. While these are all common things for fairly obscure and especially low budget films from the era, I think its status at least deserves more proper attention (yes, I know it is really expensive).
I do want to say that I hope you forgive me for any misunderstandings caused by the subtitles which are confusing, sometimes contradictory and well… see below)
The basic backbone of the film is comparable to The Phantom of the Opera but with changes to bring it to the Chinese setting. This time the opera is Yellow River Love and is a love story set in 1127 during the Jingkang incident, the actress that the Phantom trains is now an actor, and there is a not at all subtle political message and anti-feudal message (at a time when the country was under threat of Japan). It’s also much more similar in visual design to the Universal version and that era of horror which is unusual for an Eastern horror film. Still I loved he gothic atmosphere and it was the clear highlight of the film in all its gloomy, dark splendor and interesting use of shadow with the stalking phantom. SPOILERS We even get a hunchback helper and a mob with torches chasing down the phantom and burning him out as he seemingly commits suicide. END OF SPOILERS The music when used is a perfect fit and straight out of one of those films and I only wish there was more of a soundtrack as the silence (the switch to it is often abrupt).
The Phantom has been haunting a local opera company, but while his singing scares people when it starts up, he doesn’t try to disrupt the production at all. The film is less interested in the mystery of it all as it is revealed quickly that he is SPOILERS an actor (or actress as the subtitles describe him despite using male pronouns) who had supposedly died years ago (whose name, Song Danping, makes the film name a play on words). END OF SPOILERS While he helps teach one of the actors to sing while remaining unseen (which is far more sympathetic than kidnapping the analogous actress in the last version), it’s not long before the opera is a success and he’s already revealing himself to the actor.
It’s a shame though that the film gets bogged down in an extensive flashback where the pace slows to a crawl as we explore how he got to this situation. SPOILERS He was an actor who went into hiding because of his political beliefs and changed his name but came home to see his girl. There is an uncomfortable tone of his conversations to the fact that the woman, who is supposed to be his love interest, is referred to repeatedly by him as younger sister and I can only hope this is some crappy translation (considering all the grammar and spelling errors, it wouldn’t be shocking). He is caught visiting home and whipped but presses his luck. He has acid thrown into his face by a man jealous of his relationship with the woman, leaving him looking like his face and hands melted. He goes mad when his wounds do not and instructs the doctor to tell everyone he’s dead (though there are a lot of witnesses that prove this is not true) which only drives her mad as she waits for him constantly.
The man who threw acid on him is the owner of the theater (much like the original) but his revenge plot seems a little half cooked since really his only plan was to pull A Guy Named Joe and have the actor fall in love with his beloved. A plan which fails because he chose someone already engaged though there is something almost romantic in the way he is upset that the actor loving another. The phantom eventually just kills the rival in a fight but that seems a touch anti-climactic. END OF SPOILERS The acting can get rather silly and melodramatic at times which is the main downfall of the movie aside from pacing. They also show the makeup a bit too much, but it generally holds up, especially in the latter-day scenes.
Clean up the print, give it a proper translation, and streamline the flashback and Song of Midnight is on par and feeling like a classic lost Universal Monsters movie. As it is though, it’s merely an interesting movie and a look into an alternate history where horror becomes accepted in China. I know a lot of the problems with the movie (though certainly not all) are hardly the filmmaker’s fault but they affect the enjoyment and coherence of the movie nonetheless. Still, it’s worth a look if you are into this kind of thing. To me it’s pure comfort food.
Next up: By special request and recommendation of the stunning DoU, I talk about the trend of modernizing classic horror stories by looking at The Return of Dracula which brings the Count to the 50s.
Reviews from 2015
10/1 – Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia: The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol)
10/2 – United States: The Hills Have Eyes
10/3 – Japan: Ring (Ringu)
10/4 – South Korea: A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon)
10/5 – Argentina: The Appeared (Aparecidos)
10/6 – Taiwan: Silk (Gui si)
10/7 – Witching & Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi)
10/8 – Australia: Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
10/9 – New Zealand: Bad Taste
10/10 – Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen)
10/11 – Belgium: Malpertuis
10/12 – Portugal: Blood Curse/Bad Blood (Coisa Ruim)
10/13 – United Kingdom: Corruption
10/14 – Uruguay: The Silent House (La Casa Muda)
10/15 – Ireland: Grabbers
10/16 – France: High Tension (Haute Tension)
10/17 – Finland: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
10/18 – Singapore: The Maid
10/19 – Denmark: Nightwatch (Nattevagten)
10/20 – Canada: The Brood
10/21 – Israel: Rabies (Kalevet)
10/22 – The Netherlands: The Lift (De Lift)
10/23 – Germany (West Germany): Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
10/24 – Hong Kong: The Eye (Gin gwai)
10/25 – Mexico: Santa Sangre
10/26 – Indonesia: The Forbidden Door (Pintu Terlarang)
10/27 – India: 13B (Yavarum Nalam)
10/28 – Russia (USSR): Viy
10/29 – Brazil: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma)
10/30 – Norway: Cold Prey (Fritt Vilt)
10/31 – Thailand: Shutter (2004)