(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The first fully sound version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA came not from Hollywood but from China. Weibang Ma-Xu wrote and directed this adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. The film takes a long time to get going but the last 15 minutes deliver the action. The film is available on DVD and can be downloaded off the net, minus English subtitles. Expect a version fundamentally different from Western interpretations of the story. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

The Lon Chaney version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was shot as a silent film and then re-fitted to have some sound segments. All of those scenes, I believe were ones of the singing of opera. The earliest all-sound version of the story is one that until recently has not generally been known in the West. It is a 1937 film, made in China, which in English is called SONG AT MIDNIGHT. This film is considered a horror film. But with the exception of just one or two sequences it was for the most part more just a sad story than a horrific one. The Phantom's appearance is shocking, but the plot is much less so. The film is probably less interesting for itself than for comparison to other versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. There are some elements of the original story and not others. One can see what effect this subset of the original elements has.

The story takes place in China and deals with a male opera singer Sung Dan-ping (Jin Shan), who is in love with Xia (Woo Ping), the daughter of a powerful warlord. The warlord suspects Dan-ping of having connections to his enemy the Kuomintang (or KMT--the rival political faction led by Chiang Kai-shek). For that reason and because he wants to separate Dan-ping from his daughter he has his minions beat and whip Dan-ping and then throw caustic acid in Dan- ping's face, horribly disfiguring him. Dan-ping does not want Xia's pity and does not want her to see his deformed face. He arranges that she be told he is dead, but instead he goes into hiding. To fill his time he writes operas and he sings. In the dark of night he creeps out and sings to the moon. Only a handful of people know who the mysterious phantom singer is.

Now how is this different from the familiar versions of the story?

-- Dan-ping is never the powerful avenging spirit that Erik is in the PHANTOM. He is much more a figure of pity and nobility than the western Phantom is. He really wants vengeance only against the man who disfigured him and separated him from his love.

-- The Phantom's survival is not really secret. While it is not public knowledge apparently, multiple people seem to know the Phantom is Dan-ping and still alive. He just does not want Xia to know he is alive.

-- He does not have a melodramatic appearance with cape and similar folderol.

-- The story does not take place in the mysterious innards of a mysterious building like the opera house of the original. There is no dramatic chandelier sequence.

-- The Phantom is reduced from a figure of horror into simply a sympathetic victim whose goal is to just protect the woman he loves.

Weibang Ma-Xu both wrote and directed, basing his script on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Gaston Leroux. There are several touches of the film that seem to imply he based his style on Universal's horror films of the time or at the very least on the Lon Chaney version of story. While the pace of most of the film is slow--it takes an hour before Dan-ping is deformed. We have a faster-paced climax with an angry mob of villagers with burning torches. Pieces of (Western) classical music create mood, as does shadowy, high- contrast photography. This is much Universal's style. However Universal may have returned the courtesy and taken an idea from SONG AT MIDNIGHT. In the Chinese film Dan-ping's face is deformed by caustic acid thrown in his face. The Lon Chaney version, accurate to the book, has the deformity a birth defect. However, when Universal remade THE PHANDOM OF THE OPERA a second time, in 1943, Claude Rains became the Phantom when caustic acid is thrown in his face.

This film certainly counts as an adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, and as far as Chinese films go it probably is a horror film. Still today it would probably be considered more melodrama than horror. I rate SONG AT MIDNIGHT a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

There is a downloadable version of this film at Sadly, this version has no subtitles. However, two very effective sequences do not need subtitles. One is the scene where the bandages are removed from Dan-ping's face and the horribly distorted face beneath is revealed. This can be found starting about 0:58:00 minutes into the film. Then in the last finale minutes of the film Weibang Ma-Xu tries to outdo Universal in an exciting finale, and he actually succeeds. Watch starting at about 1:45:00.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper