The Phantom Lover (1995)

Directed by: Ronny Yu
Written by: Ronny Yu, Raymond Wong & Roy Szeto
Produced by: Raymond Wong & Michael Ng
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Wu Chien-Lien, Huang Lei & Roy Szeto

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1996:
Best Art Direction (Eddie Ma)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (William Chang & Yeung Sin Ling)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1996:
Best Cinematography (Peter Pau)
Best Film Editing (David Wu)
Best Original Film Score (Chris Babida)
Best Original Film Song ye boon goh sing (Midnight Song)
Music: Leslie Cheung
Lyrics: Leslie Mok
Performed by: Leslie Cheung

A small theater troup arrives in 1930's Beijing to set up and perform at an abandoned theater locale. Lead actor Wai Qing (Huang Lei from Eighteen Springs) is fascinated by the place and it's talked about history. He approaches the caretaker who begins to tell the tragic tale of a forbidden romance between the actor Danping (Leslie Cheung from A Better Tomorrow) and Yuan (Wu Chien-Lien from A Moment Of Romance)...

With Ronny Yu's 1995 movie The Phantom Lover you have to discuss two specific aspects first and foremost; cinematography and direction. For once I'm starting with the former since it's that the viewer first will first encounter during the first frames of this movie.

Academy Award Winner (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Peter Pau is the man responsible for the cinematography and what a marvelous job he's done here. Peter have always been able to make even the smallest films look great and a big costume drama like this is no problem for him either. There's a lot of challenges for him and it mostly has to do with the two distinct looks of the film. For the 1930s setting, that opens and closes the film, Peter desaturates the colours (almost creating a sepia tone look) and for the flashback to the romance 10 years earlier, the colours are bold and beautiful. In itself the desaturating wouldn't have worked in an entire movie but by having it as a contrast to past events, it become more powerful. The 1920s segment, where the romance takes place, is extremely colorful which matches the feelings of the main characters there.

In the flashback, Peter uses, in tune with the music and the romantic mood, a very sweeping camera work and it almost feels like you're on an moody amusement park ride. To contrast again, Peter shoots the 1930s segments more straightforward but still catches some amazing images. The cinematography doesn't take over the narrative despite so much going on which is a testament to Peter's skills. I would rank this among one of the best movies Peter Pau has ever shot and not many Hong Kong 90s productions were blessed with this professional look.

Director Ronny Yu went to Hollywood after this movie and while he hasn't done visual pieces up to the standard of this or The Bride With White Hair, I quite enjoyed his work on Bride Of Chucky (also shot by Peter Pau). Ronny is a very professional director who here faces the challenge to tell, on paper, a very clichéd love story. When we get to that in the movie, he doesn't give us more background to the lovers than needed. We meet Danping and Yuan at the height of their love and it's a story about forbidden love, which doesn't really need big expository dialogue to work. Their happiness is shown to us but it contains a good deal of cheesy dialogue and a big emotional score that somehow works in the hands of Ronny Yu. Since the film takes the themes from Romeo & Juliet and The Phantom Of The Opera, you can guess that a tragic turn will follow. It becomes a fairly painful experience to watch since we do care about these two and want no harm to come their way. I talk a lot about how the best filmmakers can take clichés and do them in a way that no one even mentions the word itself. Ronny Yu is definitely one of them, with this picture at least.

After 50 minutes, Danpin and Yuan's backstory is over and if the movie was predictable before this point, it's now very unpredictable. Ronny now has another challenge and that is to maintain the audiences attention while he develops this story even more. There's still romance in the movie but the desaturated look enhances the tragedy and sadness it now is about. Having talked about the movie, I do have to say that it's not the most refreshing love story ever told but a competent one nonetheless.

The score by Chris Babida (who worked on Operation Condor and Peter Pau's directorial debut Misty) meets the requirements of the genre. What that means is that it's a big emotional musical experience filled with violins to the max. That is also a challenge, to make yourself heard and Chris does that. He takes the emotions created by Peter and Ronny and delivers a diverse score that manages to stand on it's own feet. Leslie Cheung composed the songs and besides one overused number, his musical sequences didn't bother me at all. It may, or may not, be a little too connected to modern canto-pop but I feel it fits the period The Phantom Lover takes place in.

The work by the award winning art direction and costume & make up-team is pretty jawdropping considering it's a Hong Kong production. There's so much detail on and around the actors that makes you wonder where they found the energy to work on such a big movie. A lot of their work probably isn't fully seen but what they've done is taken us back many years and that is the sign of a job well done.

Leslie Cheung doesn't seem to have aged a bit since his impressive turn in A Better Tomorrow. He has to provide singing and music as well as acting and overall do a very nice job. There's not much to the character in the flashback but he becomes more interesting when he turns up in the 1930s segment. There's anger in the character that is played in a way that seems to suit Leslie more. He is upstaged though by beautiful Wu Chien-Lien. She still impresses after her debut in A Moment Of Romance and she and Leslie are a good couple on screen. Just like Leslie, she shines more in the later parts of the film and performs some truly sad scenes that ranks among the highlights of The Phantom Lover.

Huang Lei is does have to carry the movie at certain points and does that well in the end. At the start, the character seemed a little wimpy but grows as the film rolls on. Huang Lei displays maturity in his acting and is part of why the movie as a whole works. Philip Kwok (from Hard Boiled) has a cameo as well as being co-action director on the film.

Ronny Yu's The Phantom Lover is not a classic romantic drama but comes off as pretty terrific thanks to the thoroughness of everyone involved. This is what Ronny Yu is capable Hong Kong.

The DVD:

Tai Seng presents the film in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The different looks of the film is displayed nicely but the print suffers from a few things. Print damage is visible in the form of specks and lines which distracts and black borderlines on grey sometimes. The transfer is also a bit muddled which ultimately makes the movie looks like a good vhs.

The movie was shot in sync sound Mandarin (because of a largely Chinese cast and filming took place in Beijing) and that track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (downconverted to 2.0 for my setup). The fronts dominate and handles the music wonderfully. Dialogue sounds ok and overall it's a worthy soundtrack to this movie. A Cantonese 5.1 dub and an English mono dub is also selectable. Chris Babida's score can be enjoyed sans dialogue and effects on a separate channel as well (only in 2.0 though)

The English subtitles are in yellow and very easy to understand. They're obviously not done by someone who has English as their second or third language, which is the impression you get from subtitle jobs on Hong Kong import discs.

This is a 2 disc set with the first platter offering the most exciting material. Tai Seng has recorded two audio commentaries exclusively for this release and on the first track we hear director Ronny Yu discuss the movie.

Ronny first goes over the origins of the project, talking about the original 1937 production Song At Midnight and the difficulties obtaining a print of that old movie. He then nicely takes us through the movie and touching upon such topics as the multi-lingual crew, the advantages of shooting the film in Beijing and the pain screenwriter Roy Szeto had to endure in his acting debut. It's a track that gives us insight into the movie and while not terribly in-depth, it's a good listen. Ronny does leave a noticeable amount of silent gaps but picks up before the listener gets frustrated.

For the second track, Director of photography Peter Pau sits down to discuss his part in making The Phantom Lover. He's a chatty guy and gives us a slightly different perspective than Ronny on his track. As well as DP, Peter was the production supervisor and talks a lot about the working relationship with the Beijing crew. Peter highlights certain scenes and discusses what cameramoves and angles will do for the mood of the scene but his narration is not overly technical. Now and again Peter goes back to what got him interested in becoming a cinematographer and the differences between director's he's worked with over the years. It's a satisfying track that works as a nice extension to the director's one and anyone even slightly interested in cinematography will be able to enjoy Peter's comments.

On the 2nd disc we find three separate Making Of The Phantom Lover-featurettes. In actuality these are exactly the same, only difference is the market they're aimed at respectively (Cantonese, Mandarin and English).

(Leslie Cheung, Wu Chien-Lien, Ronny Yu and Peter Pau from the Making Of)

The English segment lasts for 26 minutes and has director Ronny Yu and DP Peter Pau doing their interviews in English while stars Leslie Cheung and Wu Chien-Lien's bits have permanent English subtitles. English voice over is also provided when needed in this decent featurette. The stars only go into explaining their characters and what it is like working with one another while Ronny Yu explains his motivations and intentions with the project. Peter Pau talks a little more in detail regarding the look of the film which helps elevate the making of to a decent level. Small bits of behind the scenes footage appear including parts of the big and risky fire scene. The Cantonese and Mandarin featurettes are slightly shorter and has all the participants speaking Cantonese and Mandarin when needed (except Ronny Yu who is dubbed into Mandarin). By the way, the movie clips shown reveal what must be the smallest burned in theatrical subtitles ever for a Hong Kong movie. On home video these would be unreadable almost.

Slides/Lobby Stills Showcase is an automatic slideshow consisting of 30 images set to music from the film. Nothing to get excited about. Cast & Crew has animated biographies/filmographies of stars Leslie Cheung, Wu Chien-Lien (Tai Seng uses her English name Jacqueline Wu for this section), director Ronny Yu, DP Peter Pau and editor David Wu. These gives basic but useful info for those not familiar with either person.

(from The Occupant and Legacy Of Rage trailer respectively)

The Trailers section features Hong Kong movie trailers for the Ronny Yu movies Postman Fights Back, The Occupant, Legacy Of Rage and The Phantom Lover. Then there's Tai Seng's own video trailers The Phantom Lover and Bride With White Hair 1 & 2.

The final extra is the picture gallery which has images taken DIRECTLY from the film on the 1st disc, including grabs from the opening credits! It's again an automatic slideshow that goes on for 10 minutes or so. I didn't bother finishing it because of the stupidity of it all. You should however mark the picture gallery option and press up to highlight the windows. A click away is the trailer for Ronny Yu's first american film Warriors Of Virtue.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson