Directed by Weibang Ma-Xu [Other horror films: Ye ban ge sheng xu ji (1941), Wu ye jing hun (1956), Du mang qing yuan (1961)]
Often considered China’s first horror film, Ye ban ge sheng (or Song at Midnight, as it’s commonly known) is a piece of history in many ways. This Chinese adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera has much of the tragedy and suspense you’d hope to see, but it’s also muddled due both to the worn print and lengthy run-time.
To be honest, when I first saw this one years back, I don’t remember what I thought. Part of this may be because it was during October, and getting a feel for an individual horror film in a month where I watch at least thirty to forty (or as many of two hundred and seventy-five) can be difficult. Suffice it to say I didn’t remember all that much about this one before watching again, which may have helped temper my expectations.
The biggest problem with the movie itself is the almost two hour run-time. The first fifteen minutes of this movie were borderline incomprehensible, even with English subtitles. Easily, fifteen to twenty five minutes could have been cut, and I think it’d have brought a better sense of pacing to the movie.
Though not the film’s doing, the commonly-available print of this film has really been through the wringer. Audio issues, visual issues, odd cuts, it can sometimes be a hassle to get through. Once the story starts picking up around twenty minutes in, things tend to come across more comprehensively, but then a subplot later on sort of loses me a bit.
Given that this movie isn’t that well-documented, I can’t much point out performances I thought were good. The individual playing the Phantom of the Theater House was extraordinarily solid, and probably stole the show. Others, including the younger protegee, were good, but none captured the utter tragic existence of the Phantom (a twenty-minute flashback explaining how he came to be, each minute more heartbreaking than the last, stood out as one of the best segments of the film).
Really, the story could be riveting at times. There’s also some creepy scenes to keep us going (an early one with a troupe of actors exploring a rather decrepit theater house stands out, along with the unmasking), and some good revenge at the end. At times, the film felt a bit more like a silent film than American peers at the time, and the fight sequence toward the end felt weak, but generally speaking, this is a good film.
Sadly, what probably holds Ye ban ge sheng back the most is the atrocity of the print. I think that even those who are fans of classic horror would struggle with much of it, and that can certainly lead to a more negative feeling about the story. This movie is a classic, but I just don’t think it holds up as well as it should, not through much fault of it’s own. Just below average sounds about right, sadly.