PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE – A Review by John Strange

By: John ‘Doc’ Strange
Phantom of the Theatre is set in China.  A young man, Gu Wei Bang (Tony Yo-ning Yang), has returned from learning the art of filmmaking in France just in time to witness the first ever presentation of the Film Queen Award.  The award goes to the woman everyone expected to win, Pan Ru Yu () but a surprise is in store for the audience when a special “Miss Photogenic” award which goes to newcomer Meng Si Fan (Ruby Lin).
This film is similar for Phantom of the Opera in the type of setting and having a hooded villain but the filmmakers took that idea and ran with it.  By basing their film in the Warlord-era of China, pre-World War II, they had a set of ready-made villains living in an era with cool clothing and extravagant excess in, well, pretty much everything if you had the money and the power.  There are hooks and surprises in every scene. 
The art direction under Yuan Feng paints the big city in a shabby chic motif that we are used to seeing in films actually made in that era.  The team of set dressers led by Li Yanlong did an excellent job of clothing the sets to fit story as it unfolds.  I talk about these crew members because they are responsible for one of the major characters in the play, the theater where the main action takes place.
It is not truly a movie theater but was used for all sorts of events.  In the film we see it set up for a performance by acrobats and later as a movie theater.  We are also presented with the dark side of the space, rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of the acrobats who were burned to death following their performance for a Warlord and his son as they celebrate his birthday.
That performance is the act around which the film’s storyline revolves.  The Warlord, Gu Ming Shan (Simon Yam) and his son, young Gu Wei Bang, watch the acrobats with the Warlords wife and entourage.  The Warlord wants the attentions of one of the acrobats.  She and the family defy the man.  Later, while they are preparing to leave, the doors are locked and a fire is startedwhich results in the horrific deaths of everyone in the dressing room.
We are first given a glimpse of the horror that inhabits the building when a thief runs inside to elude the police.  The man is soon screaming out in pain as the ghosts swirl around him and he burns to death, seemingly from the inside out.  The medical examiner is unable to determine the cause of the man’s death.  The police detective really spooked by the building and seems okay with calling the death “ghost-related” and closing the case. 
This film works hard to weave the multiple storylines together slowly giving us the information we need to comprehend this complex story of murder and lecherous older men.  Like Phantom of the Opera, the true villain does not appear until near the end of the film.  Until then we have to work with hating warlords and lecherous film producers.  We watch the Wei Bang convince Si Fan to star in the film he has written. 
The film will resonate with many of my independent filmmaker friends as they struggle to shoot on a small budget.  During the shooting, Si Fan experiences the ghosts on more than one occasion.  The reason for this takes some time to come out into the light. 
Personally, I felt that the filmmakers overused the ghosts but the effect is extremely well done.  The special visual effects for the film came from Shanghai Creasun Media Culture Co., Ltd. under the supervision of Visual Effects Supervisor Cecil Cheng.  The special effect with the bodies combusting was totally brilliant.
I enjoyed this film.  Only the overuse of the ghosts kept it from my highest rating.  Others may disagree with me on this but we will each watch this film and see something different in it.  I hope you take the time to watch Phantom of the Theatre.  You will find the complexity of the stories that are interwoven will require you to pay close attention but they are well written and nicely played.  It is well worth your time and money.
Directed by: Raymond Yip
Cast: Ruby Lin, Yo Yang, Simon Yam, Tony Yang
MPAA Rating: NR
Selig Rating: MATINEE
Runtime: 103 Min.
LANGUAGE: Mandarin with English Subtitles
The Selig Rating Scale:
FULL PRICE – Excellent movie, well worth the price
MATINEE – Good movie
DOLLAR – OK movie
CABLE – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.
FREEBIE – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn't paid for it.
COMMERCIAL TV – Commercials and cutting to the allotted time will not hurt this one.
FORGET IT! – Bad. If you see this one, do yourself a favor and keep it to yourself.
GET YOUR TORCHES – BAD! – Burn the script, the writer, the director and maybe even the actors!
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