Director – Ma-Xu Weibang
Producer – Shankun Zhang
Music – X. Xinghai
Directors of Photography – Boqing Xue and Xingsan Yu
Editor – Yinqing Chen
Set Design – Yiyan Mou and Yunqiao Zhang
Building on the influence of expressionist cinema and blending elements from various Universal—mostly horror—films of the 1920s and 1930s, Song at Midnight recasts the phantom as a political hero in Republican China. Billed as the first genuine horror film in the history of Chinese-language cinema, the film in fact defies easy categorization. This is not only for its political subtext and nationalist overtones but also the meandering narrative and frankly experimental nature of its filmic language. Especially striking to the film and music historian alike is the demonstrative use of recorded sound—then still a relative novelty—as well as the care with which onstage musical performances are arranged and shot. While the incidental music is a medley of pre-existing (mostly classical) music, the original songs are memorable and cunningly timed. They can at least in part be credited with the success of the film. The treatment of the story is just as remarkable.
As David Robinson noted in an essay that marked its resurfacing after years of neglect—‘Return of the Phantom’, Film Quarterly 53/2 (1999), 43-46—, Song at Midnight transforms the phantom (Song Danping) into a benevolent hero. His political past makes the theatre both a refuge from worldly affairs and the occasion for the cementing of his political and personal identity. Ironically, this happens at the hands of his nemesis, the son of a feudal lord who will in short order destroy his career and poison his private life. The acid attack that disfigures Song is given pride of place and precipitates the plot’s most arresting development. Song’s artistic protégé is a male singer (Sun) rather than a love interest (Li). That Song, out of selfless love, encourages Sun to take his place in Li’s life as a result of his misfortune might of course be interpreted as suggesting a more ambiguous configuration of affective and erotic attachments. After all, tales of male bonding are a long tradition in Chinese literature. The complex psychology of this love triangle remains undeveloped, however, as near the end the film veers decisively towards an action-driven resolution, complete with crowd scenes and a spectacular denouement.