Ghosts Run Mild in ‘Phantom of the Theatre’

Tame times in 1930s Shanghai.

Raymond Yip Wai Man’s Phantom of the Theatre has all the easy-to-digest charm of a Disneyland attraction. Also most of the built-in limitations. The China/Hong Kong production, made for HK’s Distribution Workshop, expends a large of amount of care and money on its sumptuous sets and costuming, but the scenario — written by Hana Li Jing Ling, Sakura Yang Mei Yuan, and Manfred Wong — is a slick and forgettable pastiche of well-worn Hollywood and Hong Kong spook-house routines. It’s interesting mostly as a lackluster place-holder in the career of director Yip, and as a dispiriting reminder of the standardization of big-budget Asian spectacles. The previously wild and unpredictable Crown Colony has become Burbank East. Other-worldly troubles plague the budding moviemaking career of Gu Weibang (played by Tony Yang Yo Ning), who wants to shoot a horror film in a haunted Shanghai theater, circa 1930s. Actors and crew are bursting into flame at inopportune moments, which hampers Gu’s on-set romance with starlet Meng Si Fan (Ruby Lin). Blame it on a suspicious fire years earlier and the accompanying revenge curse. In a bit of dialogue that may or may not poke fun at contemporary Chinese government authoritarianism, a character reminds the crew: “Films cannot promote superstitions and aberrations.” Perish the thought. But that doesn’t prevent filmmaker Yip (Young Bruce Lee, The Warlords) from having fun with haunted mirrors and people’s glowing charcoal innards.

Well Go USA Entertainment, the releasing company that is distributing Phantom of the Theatre, has put out an impressive string of high-gloss picture shows, including Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3, and Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin, one of last year’s best films. It also tried to sell something called Bikini Girls on Ice. Not even ice-skating ghosts in bikinis could save Phantom of the Theatre.


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