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Phantom of the Theatre
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by Jay Seaver

"How to make a ghost story in China."
3 stars

Making a horror movie in China is not an easy thing; though one occasionally sneaks through, the supernatural is on the censorship board's "don't" list, despite the fact that, as a character in "Phantom of the Theatre" attests, ghosts are a terrifically rich metaphor for the past catching up with people. Of course, this character is also trying to shoot his film in a haunted theater, so his production has other problems a mite bigger that seeming like it can't tell exactly the story the filmmakers want.

The Shanghai theater in question has, by the mid-1930s, earned enough of a reputation that the police won't chase a pickpocket when he dashes in, only to be confronted by ghosts that seemingly burn him from the inside out, puzzling coroner "Phyllis" Fei Lisi (Huang Huan). Shanghai was, for a time, the center of the Chinese movie industry, and while Pan Ruyu (Natalie Meng Yao) is feted as the local "film queen" at a local ceremony, up and coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin Xin-ru) gets just as much attention for being named "Miss Photogenic" - most notably from Pan's lover, producer Tang Shirao ("Jungle" Lin Jiang-guo). Tang won't give much attention to would-be director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang You-ning), the would-be director, until he convinces Sifan to star. Then Tang steps up to bring in heartthrob Liu Kang (Wu Xu-dong) as the male lead. Weibang has a personal reason to want to shoot his movie there - as a child, his warlord father Mingshan (Simon Yam Tat-wah) had rented out the theater for a birthday party, leading to the tragedy that gave the place its reputation.

Writers Hana Li Jing-ling and Sandra Yang Mei-yuan have a bit of a tendency to overdo things a bit; for instance, Lisi being Weibang's girlfriend at the start doesn't do enough to bring her into the story and acts as a drag when sparks start to fly between Weibang and Sifan later on. Then there's the necessity to hold the supernatural at arms' length, which runs the risk of what happened with Mojin a few months ago, where the alternate explanations necessary to placate the censors that there's nothing paranormal going on are even goofier than "a ghost did it". It crowds out what is actually a pretty decent haunted house story, not shy about having The Phantom of the Opera as an ancestor but vey much its own thing, with a little more more going on in both the present and past than one might expect. That gives the filmmakers plenty of time to lay out broad hints, have a few scares, and maybe thin out the cast a bit before laying all the cards on the table and leading up to a final confrontation.

It's a good-looking ride along the way, too. Director Raymond Yip Wai-man and Manfred Wong Man-chun churned out a lot of genre movies in Hong Kong before (like many in that city) gravitating toward the mainland where they get the budget to build opulent gilded-age sets and put the cast in gorgeous costumes, with pretty decent special effects when phantoms need to appear or people need to spontaneously combust. The script is a bit overloaded by the end, but Yip and editor Zhao Zheng-chao are good at giving new revelations a little bit of time while still charging ahead. The crew handles the action bits nicely, and I'm guessing the 3D release in China looked very nice (although the 2D image is crisp and not too busy).

This sort of modern-gothic story can be tough on the cast, stuck between a twentieth-century naturalism and something more mannered. Ruby Lin Xin-ru does a fine job of overcoming this; she's able to play Sifan as the ingenue while also working the scenes that hint at a much more complicated past very well. Tony Yang You-ning, on the other hand, is capable enough, but doesn't quite make the operatic complement to Lin that the movie needs. Jing Gang-shan certainly injects the right sort of energy when he makes his entrance late in the movie, but Simon Yam - a ubiquitous but always-welcome Hong Kong character actor - isn't quite the right guy to make Mingshan the towering force that casts a shadow over the rest of the events.

The film is still a good time, a good-looking blend of opulent and kind of scary. It can't help but be pulled in a couple of different directions - it's one of those Chinese movies where one wonders what it would be like if it were made in and for Hong Kong - but it's slick fun for those who like this sort of period ghost story.

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originally posted: 05/29/16 04:03:26
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Directed by
  Wai Man Yip

Written by
  Hana Li
  Sandra Yang
  Manfred Wong

  Ruby Lin
  Tony Yo-ning Yang
  Simon Yam

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