Sunday, July 4, 2010

THE EAST IS RED #13: Song at Midnight - Back to the Beginning

by Lisa Morton

Back in 1997, when I was starting to seriously explore my burgeoning interest in Asian cinema, I found a book called Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions by Stephen Teo; the book (which is now considered a sort of seminal study of Chinese cinema) was an eye-opener in many regards, but none more so than the references to a director named Ma-Xu Weibang and his 1937 film Song at Midnight. Teo said, “Ma-Xu was something of an iconoclast who virtually created the modern horror genre in Chinese cinema with Song at Midnight”; he also called the movie a “horror classic” and a “masterwork”. A year later, Song at Midnight was rediscovered on the film festival circuit (thanks, perhaps, to Teo’s work?), and it’s since been named to several “100 Best Chinese Films” lists. Needless to say, I had to see it.
My first copy was a blurry, cheap VCD (a video format that was huge in Hong Kong in the recent past, although it’s basically given way now to DVD) without subtitles. The print was awful – choppy, scratchy – but it didn’t matter. Song at Midnight was still frequently mesmerizing.
Before I launch into a synopsis, let me state right here: I’ve still never seen the film with subtitles, although I’ve purchased several different copies. I think there is one available now on DVD, and there’s some kind of downloadable subtitle file at Internet Archives (where you can also see the film for free), but I couldn’t get it to open. In the long run, it doesn’t matter; any horror fan should possess a passing familiarity with the plot of The Phantom of the Opera (which Song is loosely based on), and will have no trouble following the plot.

Song at Midnight may be based on Phantom of the Opera, but it absolutely owes a visual debt to Tod Browning’s Dracula. Ma-Xu was politically progressive (Teo describes him as “consumed with revolutionary zeal”) and he admired western art (in fact Song is scored with cues from classics like Night on Bald Mountain and even Porgy and Bess), so he certainly would have seen the early American horror classics. Song opens with a storm over a large deserted building (which is essentially a castle); the castle’s caretaker is a deformed, ancient man with a lantern. After an eerie wind blows through the halls, a silhouetted phantom appears and sings to the rundown house near the castle; an old woman appears, leading a nearly-catatonic young woman (who could easily pass for one of Dracula’s brides). The young woman listens to the song, emotion struggling just beneath her stony features.
Cut to: A theatrical troupe arrives in horse-drawn carriages. Caught in a torrential downpour, they try to take shelter in the castle, but are frightened off by cobwebs, snakes, rats, and strange hanging mannequins. After setting up camp nearby, they begin rehearsals. Our handsome young hero (who we’ll call “Raoul”, after the Leroux hero) has been assigned the lead in a musical, but he fails the audition, unable to sing the difficult song. Not long after, he hears a magnificent voice singing the piece, and he meets Song Danping, the phantom we saw earlier. Song tutors the young man, who scores a hit on opening night. Song also reveals his past to our Raoul: When he was young, he was an accomplished singer who ran afoul of an evil warlord when the warlord fell for Song’s girlfriend (who we saw earlier as the catatonic woman). The warlord had Song whipped, but when Song’s girlfriend failed to renounce her love for the singer, the warlord hired thugs to throw acid in Song’s face. In one of the most effective scenes in the film, Song’s family (including a child) care for him until the day they remove his bandages – and react in horror when they see his hideously mutilated face. Song, equally repulsed, flees to the deserted castle, where the caretaker becomes his only companion. When Song’s girlfriend is informed of his fate, she goes mad (in another wonderfully disturbing scene).

In the present, Song asks Raoul’s help in reaching his girlfriend. Raoul approaches her, and she mistakes him for Song; as a result of their encounter, she regains her sanity. Freed from having to watch over his love, Song turns to the warlord, who is now a middle-aged lecher with three wives. During a performance by the theater company, the warlord is smitten by Raoul’s girlfriend (who we’ll call Christine). After the performance, he bursts into her dressing room and tries to force himself on her. When Raoul runs in, the warlord tries to shoot him, but hits Christine instead; when he tries to flee the scene, Song blocks his escape. Song tries to hit the warlord with a jar of acid, but they fight and the jar breaks elsewhere. Song chases the warlord into the top of a tower, and finally succeeds in killing him.
Song tries to flee, but the villagers are in pursuit now. They chase him to a deserted tower overlooking the sea; they set fire to the tower, but Song throws himself into the water, leaving his ultimate fate uncertain.

Ma-Xu did indeed make a sequel to Song in 1941 (I’ve not seen the sequel). Some time later, he left Shanghai (where he’d made Song) and relocated to Hong Kong, where he produced one more horror classic, A Maid’s Bitter Story (also known as The Haunted House). I’ve still not seen that 1949 gem, but it’s on my radar.
Like Phantom of the Opera, Song has been remade several times, most famously in 1995 as Ronny Yu’s sumptuous, romantic The Phantom Lover, featuring the legendary Leslie Cheung as Song.
However, Ma-Xu’s 1937 original stands on its own. The scenes of horror still work surprisingly well, with Jin Shan giving a terrific, very physical performance as the tortured Song; even the make-up on him is very solid, easily surpassing Claude Rains’s burned face in the 1943 American version of Phantom. Ma-Xu had an obvious affection for expressionism as well, and the sets and high-contrast lighting create considerable mood and visual pleasure. With subtitles, I’ve no doubt that Song also has a potent political message about the evils of the aristocracy and the moral value of art.
Song at Midnight is frankly not recommended for the casual viewer just looking for a good night of entertainment. But for the serious lover of horror cinema – especially those who might think they know the canon, but haven’t seen Song – it’s a must-see.