Song At Midnight

I know nothing about Chinese history. Well, not nothing actually, it’s just that nothing that I do know about it is connected to anything else I do know about it and all of the details are fuzzy. So, basically nothing.

One of the downsides of this is that I found it quite hard to place what was happening in Song at Midnight. That, coupled with not ever having seen or been told the story of The Phantom of the Opera on which the film is loosely based makes for some pretty difficult stuff when attempting to understand what is important and what is not.

Part of Chapter’s Electric Shadows, a season of film programmed by the British Film Institute (BFI), Song at Midnight represents the earliest of examples of Chinese cinema. More importantly though – especially given the topic of the film itself – Song at Midnight is also the first full-sound production of the the Phantom myth.

It is hard to comment on what is so obviously a classic for many reasons. But the use of cinematography in this production is really quite wonderful.

For example, the way that a camera pans across a body of water and then up to a path where people are walking is a technique that seems way out of its time. Additionally, the scenes where Song Danping escapes from a crowd who are chasing him with torches are sublime – multiple shots overlaid on each other to give the impression of a much larger crowd.

Although as I have already mentioned, I am no expert in adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s story, even I can tell that there are several special elements to Director Weibang Ma-Xu’s version.

First and foremost, Song Danping the man who sings a song every midnight to his love – who he appears to live across the street from – is a monster not because of a birth defect, but because he was attacked by the local don (who happens to think that Song Danping is not quite feudal son-in-law material) and his henchmen. After a nitric acid attack, Song is subject to facial melting. Of course, this has the effect of making us really sympathise with a man who’s actually super nice referring to lots of people in the subtitles (more on that later) as ‘pal’ or ‘perfect pal.’ This is different to other interpretations of the gothic story which pitch the Phantom as a man to be feared.

Secondly, there is a really political history happening throughout this film. As it turns out, Song has already spent a large amount of his life in tragedy. Having changed identity once because he was a revolutionary fighter, he hides for years so that no-one will try to execute him. Then he assumes the identity of Song Danping who has a wonderful voice. Even the opera in which Song appears in flashbacks is a political one entitled ‘BLOOD’ – which compares the hero to an early period Robespierre of the French Revolution.

While the film itself was a very entertaining and compelling account of what 1930s Chinese attitudes to women, art and politics were, the most entertaining thing about this version of the film was the translation of the Chinese. Or rather, not the translation, but the errors in translation which appear so frequently.

Of course, no one will blame a translator for losing some of the sense of the original when it is translated into English – a language so utterly far removed from Chinese – but there are many instances in this reel where hilarious mishaps have occurred. For example, during a very serious conversation between Song Danping and the modern day hero of the story Sun Xiaoou, Song reveals that during his last ten years of torment, he has spent time: “Changing BLOOD and writing new material” which somehow places him next to an indie kid with a garage band rather than the enigmatic Phantom.

But really, these errors only add to the charm and entertainment that watching a film set in a place and time that have no relation to my own life whatsoever brings.

Electric Shadows continues all month at Chapter.