HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: Phantom of the Theater
HTS Overall Score:77
The instant I saw the trailer for “Phantom of the Theater” I knew I had to check it out. I’m a huge fan of “Phantom of the Opera” and this supposedly harkened to being an Asian version of that iconic film. Strangely enough it is, and it isn’t, in the end. Bits of it take after the famous movie complete with masked vengeance ridden ghostly man, but it also blends in supernatural horror and a bittersweet romance as well. Raymond Yip has been on a role lately with his ghostly horror movies (“Blood Stained Shoes” and “The House that Never Dies” were both very enjoyable, so I was really excited to see his latest creation. The movie can be a bit overstuffed at times, and wavers in its desire to be a supernatural ghost story, or a mysterious romantic revenge thriller (which aren’t exactly devoid of relation, it’s just that there could have been a little more effort in tying up some of the loose ends once the movie shifted from supernatural to more realistic).
Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, the movie revolves around the efforts of a young man named Gu Wei Bang (Tony Yang) who wants to create a film in the local theater. A theater that was actually the site of a grisly set of deaths some 13 years ago when an acrobatic troupe was burned alive in a seeming accident. Gu Wei Bang has been fascinated with the theater ever since he was a child, as his own father (a warlord soldier played by the fantastic Simon Yam) took him there to watch performers ply their trade. After a chance encounter with actress Meng Si Fan (Ruby Lin), Wei Bang inviters her to become his lead actress and his film can finally get off the ground.
What starts out as a simple film soon turns into a labor of love and perseverance. Right off the bat the lead actor is mysteriously burned from the inside out, leaving the only person who can fill in the director himself. Slowly more mysterious events begin to unfold and it becomes quite clear that there is SOMETHING else at work. Something ghostly and something malevolent. Meng Si Fan has her own deeply rooted secrets that tie into the mysterious happenings, and even Wei Bang is drawn into the thick of things as the script reveals his links to that tragic even 13 years ago. I won’t go into too much detail with the plot as most of the film is best experienced as the secrets unfold rather than told here.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=82081[/img]I have a huge love of Asian horror movies, especially the Japanese one, as they are free from the constraints of SARFT (China’s government and cultural oversight committee which controls the inclusion of ghosts and apparitions in their films and literature. Something which usually castrates a good horror movie before it begins). However “Phantom of the Theater” does an amazingly good job of skating by on a thin line of genres. The first 1/3rd of the movie plays to the ghostly elements of the story. Bringing us into a tale of revenge that goes back to the horrible fire 13 years ago and all of the spirits that are still haunting the theater. At the same time you can almost expect the twist that happens about half way in wherein we come to realize that there are much more “realistic” and grounded elements at work here. Especially due to the fact that SARFT would pretty much make it a given that we wouldn’t get a TRUE ghost story.
Once the switch happens the plot opens up a good deal and gives us more insight into what happened back then, and very deftly changes into a bittersweet love tale between Wei Bang and Si Fan. Well, that and the inevitable tale of revenge that has been 13 years in the making between the warlord father of Wei Bang and the mysterious man in the theater. It’s this switch that actually keeps the plot fresh and interesting, as ghost stories are very difficult to get just right, with most of them fizzling out fairly early on and leaving us with a mediocre finale. I won’t say that it is a perfect switch, though, being that once the film switches it leaves some questions about what we just saw during the first act. The combustion and mysterious lights crashing and nearly killing Wei Bang are easily explained away, but the apparitions that are seen are less obviously wrapped up (even though they are very much explainable if you put the clues together. It’s just that they aren’t very deftly handled on screen).
While the gothic elements of the show are fairly muted and glossed over, the theater itself is a cornucopia of fantastic colors and wonderful ambiance. The entire set really feels like a stage play, with hazy lighting and fake mist rising up from the ground. The sumptuous detailing with the backgrounds are nothing short of amazing and the actors fit right at home as a play within a play. Tony Yang and Ruby Lin do great job as the two leads, but I was a tad disappointed with Simon Yam as the incredible Asian actor just wasn’t given a whole lot to work with. He’s a legend in Hong Kong cinema, and I would have loved to see him take a more main stream role in the movie, but that’s a very minor quibble. Mostly because I absolutely adore him and want to see more and more of his acting whenever he’s on screen.
Not Rated by the MPAA
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=82089[/img]I was more than a little bit surprised to see that “Phantom of the Theater” didn’t get a Blu-ray release. Usually the only films that Well Go USA releases on DVD are older titles that really don’t have a good HD master to use (like some of the Shaw Brothers films, or beaten up old flicks like “Avenging Fist”). However, “Phantom” is a brand new release that most certainly has an HD master and the DVD looks amazing, leading me to wonder the reason for the exclusion. Still, as I said, the DVD looks absolutely amazing. The film takes on a very gothic look, with the outer city maintaining a very desaturated and grey/blue looking color grading to it. Inside the theater it is much more vivid and filled with all sorts of neon colors as well as sharp primaries and soft pastels blended in. Si Fan’s dressing room is filled with sharp golds and soft blues, while the theater stage is given a slightly hazy look with mist everywhere and neon colored pinks, greens and ghostly yellows. Fine detail is readily apparent, with the dresses and costuming benefiting the most from the clarity. There is a little banding here and there, but much less than I’m used to with these films. Blacks are strong and show great shadow detail, but I do have to say that the standard CGI that is common in Hong Kong films still isn’t exactly up to what the U.S. would consider “par” (something that is very common in Asian films, where they focus much more on costumes and set pieces rather than enormous CGI budget).
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=82097[/img]The 5.1 Dolby Digital Mandarin track is more than capable, and sounds great for a new release film. Dialog is strong and clean, with proper anchoring in the center channel, and the surrounds get a good workout with the gothic score as well as a few moments of activity (such as when someone bursts into flame, or a chase through the cluttered theater hallways). LFE is capable, but slightly lacking for something with this much musical ambiance. There are a few moments where the bass packs a punch, but strangely it acts as a light supplement for the music and used to liven up the bottom end just a little bit. It’s a great audio track, and once that works quite well for the romantic horror film, with the only real flaw being that the bass could have just been a BIT more lively.
• Theatrical Trailer
“Phantom of the Theater” isn’t a perfect film. In fact there are quite few clichés and tropes that devalue the film. But it is still an entertaining piece. The movie starts out with an incredible bang and then does an about face after the first act, but it also is an about fact that is much like the titular main character. Once the mask is taken off and the face behind it revealed, much of the romanticism and horror that was built up to in the first half of the movie feels a bit deflated. Still, the incredible ambiance and the bittersweet tale of love and revenge works quite well and I am more than willing to overlook many of the flaws in the film. Audio and video looks and sound fantastic, but sadly there is only a handful of trailers to make up the supplemental material. I was a bit saddened to see that this didn’t garner a Blu-ray release, but the DVD is still a solid package and well worth a watch for those who like a softer sort of horror movie.
Starring: Simon Yam, Tony Yo-ning Yang, Ruby Lin
Directed By: Wai Man Yip
Written By: Jingling Li, Manfred Wong
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 MPEG2
Audio: Mandarin: Dolby Digital 5.1, Mandarin DD 2.0
Studio: Well Go USA
Runtime: 104 Minutes
DVD Release Date: October 11th, 2016
Buy Phantom of the Theater on DVD at Amazon
Recommendation: Enjoyable Watch
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