Wednesday, January 26, 2011

German Expressionism, Greek Tragedy, and KMT China: 'Song at Midnight'

'The Phantom of the Opera' is one of the works that so pervades the artistic consciousness that you deem it unnecessary to view, for you've been so bombarded with it and talk of it, and cinematic references to it that you feel familiarized with the material, despite having never read the original book, seen a play version, or watched a filmed version. This arrogance of assumed knowledge is generally wrong.

It was with the aforementioned hubris that I decided to watch the cultural mash-up of another age, 'Song at Midnight' (also know as 'Midnight Song,' and first known as 'Ye ban ge sheng,' its original Chinese name whose Pinyin transcription I've probably just mangled, the literal translation of which is 'Voice at Midnight'). The film is a grainy, Chinese version of 'Phantom of the Opera' that meshes the original French story, German Expressionism, and Greek tragedy, as well as some (what was then) contemporary politics.

I assumed that I was familiar enough with the 'Phantom' story to be able to watch 'Song at Midnight' and identify similarities, themes, etc. Of course, I was not - luckily for me, however, 'Song at Midnight' is by no means an exact reproduction of 'Phantom' - and its a sufficiently interesting and enjoyable enough film from a completely different era that knowledge or comparison with 'Phantom' became, in my opinion, wholly unnecessary. I think there's enough going on here to shy away from juxtaposing the original 'Phantom' or any of its film or stage replications with 'Song.'

At the center of the story (essentially, kind of, like the basic story of 'Phantom,' but with differences) lies Song Dangping, the disfigured former opera star. He is a tragic figure who finds himself the the target of a scheming political figure who happens to have designs on the same woman as Song. This leads, unfortunately, to an attack on Song, wherein the political figure throws acid onto Song's face, disfiguring him for life. This disfigurement, in turn, leads Song to go into seclusion, turning the opera house into his hermitage and deluding his lover into thinking that he died from the horrifying attack; she, in turn, goes crazy upon hearing of his supposed death, bleeding from the mouth after a frantic faint, and adapting the wide-eyed hollow glare worn by the insane in 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'.

A side plot exists to tell Song's story: Years later, a group of peripatetic actors arrive at the opera house, which is cobwebbed from years of neglect. The leading actor of the troupe is an insecure young man, unsure of himself and his abilities. Song, identifying his former self in the young lead, chooses to disclose his presence to the wet-behind-the-ears young man, and begins to live vicariously through him and advising him. Unfortunately, Song, without an identity of his own for so long, begins to reclaim his long-lost life by taking control of his protege's. He convinces the young man to perform the play that won him the heart of his lover of so many years ago, and even goes so far as to goad the young man into talking with Song's lover, thereby snapping her out of her psychotic state. This has the unintentional goal of driving his lover to conflate the young actor with Song; synchronously, Song is doing the same thing, viewing the young actor not as a separate individual, but as an extension of himself.

Truly, Song is a tragic figure, doomed from the start, affected by forces outside of his control. His opera career falters because of perceived political undertones, his romance is destroyed by a jealous maniac, and his attempts to provide joy to the woman he loves by presenting her with a new 'version' of himself fail. The story ends as all Greek tragedies do: tragically, in an inferno, as the character realizes there is no place for him in this world. Chased by angry villagers in a scene out of 'Frankenstein,' or perhaps the riots of 'Metropolis,' Song holes up in an old mill, and chooses the one option left him that can truly be done under his own volition.

The film is available for download and streaming at

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