Song at Midnight

dir. Ma-Xu Weibang

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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A loose adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, this beautifully shot and creepily atmospheric tale of a disfigured opera singer is recognized as the first Chinese horror film.

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A loose adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Song at Midnight is "an oddball mixture of horror film, propaganda piece and musical; it rates historical importance as the first acknowledged Chinese horror film" (Donato Totaro). Soon after the fall of Imperial China, an opera troupe arrives at a theatre overseen by a troll-like custodian and a catatonic woman named Li Xiaoxia, who is entranced by the haunting voice of a plaintive, unseen singer. The young leftist leader of the troupe delves into the mystery and discovers that the voice belongs to a mysterious man named Song Danping, once a famous opera singer who was tortured and hideously disfigured by an evil lord over his love for the woman who now thinks him dead. Beautifully rendered in gothic black-and-white, Song at Midnight is intriguing both for its political content — making the wronged hero Song Danping "a fugitive revolutionary, using the theatre as a sanctuary ... with clear references to the chaotic political struggles of the 1920s" (David Robinson) — and its evocation of 1930s Hollywood horror films. Director Ma-Xu Weibang went on to be a force in postwar Hong Kong cinema, and may have helped institute its tradition of cleverly appropriating visual and narrative motifs from both Hollywood and other national cinemas.