Song Danping – Leslie Cheung
Yun Yan – Chien-Lien Wu
Director – Ronnie Yu
Screenwriters – Roy Szeto, Raymond Wong, Ronny Yu
Producers – Michael Ng, Raymond Wong
Editor – David Wu
Director of Photography – Peter Pau
Music – Chris Babida
Production Designer – Eddie Ma
The Phantom Lover is among the most compelling and richly connoted of the phantom on-screen adaptations. What sets it apart are the high production values, explicit orientation toward the mainland Chinese audience—as evidenced by the use of Mandarin—and last but not least its winking at both contemporaneous British culture and venerable Chinese precedents (as befits many a Hong Kong film from this period of the former colony’s history). The film revives the story of the phantom along a particular and especially fertile route of cultural transfer, that of the remake. Bypassing not only literary sources but also most screen adaptations—including the 1962-3 Hong Kong remakes—the production team settled from the start on a faithful, if much updated, version of the legendary 1937 Song at Midnight (Yeban gesheng).
As per Hong Kong custom, The Phantom Lover was released with a double Chinese-English title. In general, English titles need not be a translation though they may be understood as paraphrasing or punning over their Chinese counterparts. The English title of the 1937 version is on the other hand a more-or-less literal translation made for the benefit of the international audience of the (single) Chinese title “Yeban gesheng”.
Whether the derivation from the then mostly unknown source-film played a role in its immediate reception is questionable. Another source was to prove more immediately noticeable, however. The iconography and especially the musical style of some of the key sequences betray the influence of Webber’s stage musical. This is unsurprising given that the film originated in Hong Kong. Indeed, one wonders whether The Phantom Lover partakes of a long tradition of Hong Kong productions “repackaging” some of the latest acts and trends in the Anglophone world for the mainland audience (Webber’s music did not officially open in China until as late as 2015).
The stage musical notwithstanding, another decisive musical influence followed from the casting of the film’s undisputed star Leslie Cheung. A phenomenally popular Hong Kong-born singer, writer, and actor, Cheung at the time of filming enjoyed extraordinary visibility in all manner of media in both Hong Kong and the Chinese-speaking overseas markets (Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the many Chinatowns scattered across the world). Cheung did not merely act as a marketing vehicle but also injected the film the legacy of Cantopop (a genre of popular music blending original Cantonese lyrics with the musical and production values of mainstream Anglo-American and Japanese pop). While the film’s songs are all sung strictly in Mandarin, their Hong Kong flavor is instantly recognizable, Cheung himself contributing three original compositions.
Despite or perhaps because of the richness and diversity of its influences, The Phantom Lover met with a lukewarm response both in its home market and regionally, and was largely ignored by Western distributors. It nevertheless remains a fascinating product of the Hong Kong film industry in its prime, and a choice object in the screen afterlife of Leroux’s novel.