Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)

Ye Ban Ge Sheng
“Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is the first Chinese entry on the list. The English subtitle is “Song at Midnight” and it is a Chinese version of the phantom of the opera story.

“Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is a celebrated film in China. A Chinese colleague of mine told me it is well known and still aired regularly by Chinese television. A revered piece of art. I therefore hope that any Chinese readers will forgive me when I say that it did not really work out for me.

The story is interesting enough. The original phantom story has been transplanted to China which is interesting in itself, but also the motivations and the plot has been changed. The monster is no longer a jealous lover, but a caring lover who got disfigured by a local feudal kingpin who felt fingered in a political play and wanted the actor’s lover. As a result Sun Dangpin did not want to let Xiaxiao see his now hideous face so he feigned dead and became the ghost. He still sings for at night in the garden and Xiaxiao, who never stopped loving him is going out of her mind. Okay, freaky, but interesting.

Now 10 years later a new theater troupe has arrived at the theater with a lead actor of limited skill but good looks. He is also called Sun by the way. Dangpin decides to coach him to become a star. In return he must go to Xiaxiao and become a physical lover for her. Of course it does not really work out and that resolution is quite interesting to follow.

Having said all that I am having some difficulty with this film. Obviously this is a Chinese film with a lot of Chinese sentiments permeating it. I find it at times difficult to understand what or why the characters are doing what they seem to be doing and a lot of the remarks, exclamations and emotional outbursts seem to happen out of nothing. I am sure a Chinese would be more attuned to this and so my criticism may be unfair. However the worst damage to the movie are technical issues.

Man, I do not even know where to begin. Everything technical about this film is abysmally poor. While the acting quality, which to my inexpert eye is amateurish, may be explained by cultural differences, there is no way to excuse the rest.

The copy I have is in very bad preservation. Yet behind the flicker and noise it is clear (or unclear) that the cutting technique is poor both in the picture that often jumps or shifts abruptly and in the sound that appears and disappears, vary in strength and is often distorted. This includes the curious effect of people taking with no sound. It is mentioned in the Book that the film has adopted light and shadow techniques from the German expressionists, but I think they just mean shadow as the entire film is presented in a dark haze where it is often not possible to see anything.
The film combines a number of Chinese elements with western elements. They young actor is thus very “western” – read: modern in his cloth and style, he plays classic Spanish guitar music and the plays look very… French. Obviously the film juxtapositions traditional and western elements as a conflict between old and new. Unfortunately this includes the soundtrack. Western music is often used or abused thematically in a way that is almost comical. Bach’s Air as the melancholy of Sun Dangpin or a track when the young actors girlfriend undresses that almost sounds like boudoir seduction music, although she is just changing between acts. The biggest laugh however was the final climactic scenes where The Sorcerer's Apprentice  was used as theme. I know Fantasia was only made a few years later, but really, I could not help seeing Mickey Mouse fighting a lot of brooms and water. Indeed the scene with the cripple barring the door of the angry mob is so similar to Mickey trying to stop the demonic brooms from entering the gate. Unfair, I know, but what can I do?

The biggest issue I have with “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is not even the fault of the movie itself. It is the subtitling.

Anybody who has been to China must agree with me that the Chinese have a very relaxed, even sloppy relationship with English. It is often even worse than my English. The phenomenon is often called Engrish and results in some very peculiar texts (try Google Engrish). I actually love this and have a large collection from my trips to China. Even large corporations use English translations that sound absurd. Often the explanation is that it is not aimed at foreigners at all, but because the Chinese thinks it sounds cool. When it comes to technical writing or subtitles for films it starts getting really annoying though. This is not about coolness, but about using automatic translation. Google Translate and similar services are NOT for subtitles. Yes, it is funny in the beginning, but when you start getting confused because you just have no idea what these people are trying to say to each other then the film loses value. This was a case in the extreme.

Beneath all these technical difficulties is a movie of some quality and I am sure I would be more positive if I obtained a good copy with proper subtitles, but even then it is clear that in 1936 Chinese cinema was far behind many other countries. At this time Mizuguchi made films of much higher quality in Japan for example.  

As it is you would probably get the best experience with “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” if you ignore the story and the actors as such and just focus on the ridiculous subtitles. If they do not annoy you, you might actually find them funny.


  1. It's kind of a shame, because I think there's a real movie under the bad subtitling and the crappy print that's available. With a good restoration (Criterion, maybe?) this might really be worth watching.

    1. Yes, I have a feeling I would get an entirely different experience with a good quality restored version. It is amazing what has been done with other old films, especially on the lighting.
      However as it is it is rather limited what I get out of it.

  2. It's really too bad. We will never know whether the problems were technical or the fault of the film elements. For example, are the abrupt cuts due to bad film editing or missing footage? If the film has deteriorated to the point where it is very dark, parts may have gone completely. I have a bunch of early Chinese films coming up so maybe I can see whether there is a common thread of problems.

    The story you describe actually sounds interesting even if the execution does not.

    1. That is the thing, it is difficult to say. I think the problems are deeper than just deterioration, but I would need to see a restored version to know.
      This is by far the earliest Chinese production I have seen so I cannot tell if it is typical for Chinese films at the time.
      One thing that did work out was the make-up of the ghost. He is terrifying, the best I have seen in a Phantom production. Also the pursuit of the angry mob in the end is good, so there are promising elements.

  3. I liked this film. I've seen more than a few bad prints or bad subtitling for it to bother me anymore.

    I saw this film as a combination of Phantom of the Opera, which you mentioned, and Cyrano de Bergerac. In fact, I felt that the themes from those were translated pretty much unchanged to this Chinese film. I found that interesting.

    1. Then you are better than me at ignoring the technical issues. I really tried liking it and near the end it almost worked, but only almost.
      An excellent movie I saw recently, "My Man Godfrey" was ruined the first time round for the same reason. Second time I found a good copy and it made all the difference.