"Making a film is like being in a dream. I never want to stop dreaming," says director Gu WeiBang (Tony Yang), a young man fresh from being in Paris studying filmmaking, coming back to Shanghai in the 1930s to work on his new script, a ghost/love story. He tries to enlist a newly crowned Queen of the Cinema to star in his film and she refuses but then comes across the co-winner of the award, the mysterious Meng SiFan (Ruby Lin) and she is cast in the role. The young man also decides to film in an allegedly haunted old theatre where 13 people from a performance troupe were brutally murdered in a fire and supposedly haunts the building.
When a thief accidentally runs inside to escape police, the police balk at going in to pursue. But when he winds up dead, burned from the inside out, that puzzle falls squarely on the shoulders of WeiBang's girlfriend, a forensic pathologist (Huan Huang). And when the young director's leading man winds up in the same manner after the theatre is refurbished and restored, he finds himself falling in love with SiFan and putting his own life and current relationship at risk.
Needless to say, the leading lady becomes quite a mystery to our young director and tries to explain away his feelings as "just professional" when it's obviously not to the pathologist. Forced to being the leading man, WeiBang must deal not only with the budding romance but also the strained relationship with his Warlord father, Gu Mengshan (Simon Yam), who harbors secrets of his own and seeks to look up the background of SiFan. What he finds is surprising to WeiBang.
This Oriental version of The Phantom of the Opera is visually compelling, artistically bright and fresh, evocative of the 1930s Shanghai style, stunningly beautiful and strong characters as each one commands their craft well, you are drawn into a story where it feels not like a love triangle with the director, but what appears to be real and unreal. As the doctor tells WeiBang that she must deal with reality, he is left wanting to create something fantastic and lasting.
The question of whether the ghosts are real or imagined eats in the back of your mind as you marvel at some of the most creative ones made in this film. In the midst of WeiBang's filming, the mystery of the thirteen dead comes up -- and as to who started the fire in the first place -- and we are connected by the strands of characters in WeiBang's life that leads up to a heart-wrenching climax leaving you breathless and somewhat shaken when mysteries get answers from SiFan, Mengshan, and the "Phantom" as well. The doctor eventually figures out how the bodies get burned and even the living suffer an emotional burn and purge by the film's end when vengeance is spent and the young director's heart torn in two.
This reviewer was captivated by the story and performances. Colorful, yet dark, incredibly engaging and believable characters you begin to question their motives, be in love with, then hate with equal measure, holding on to phantasms of ideals that could easily be burned away at any moment. And the theme of fire runs through this story in its many different forms. Even the ghosts themselves had a fiery intensity that was eerie and quite beautiful and dangerous at the same time. I took away some understanding that it was never a building that was truly haunted. It was the people who were. Keep that in your mind when you watch this.
Our leading lady, SiFan, summed it up best to give us an answer to how we should all be in life: "Love always feels better than hate."
Directed by Raymond Yip, The Phantom of the Theatre is being released today on DVD.