Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

夜半歌聲 (Song at Midnight)

Ma-Xu Weibang

On a cold and windy night when the rain is falling and the moon is hidden, a voice rings out in the Chinese streets. A large shadow appears and a voice is heard. Singing in a mournful voice, it cries:

My appearance is ugly as a ghost,
my heart is hard as an iron
Only I am alive, I swear I will fight
with the devil king of that feudalism
Ah, Miss! Only you can see through my lifetime
Only you can know my innermost
feelings of apprehensibility
You are the moon in the sky,
and I am cold star near that moon.

We then see a stoic young woman, clad in a white robe, push open a door and walk outside. She listens in silence. For she knows, this song is for her. It is the voice of her dead lover who in life was an actor.

What can I use to vanish your loneliness?
Only this midnight singing
Only this midnight singing.

The song ends and the sky bursts open with a thunderclap. We have just entered the world of 夜半歌聲 (Yeban gesheng), which in English translates to Song at Midnight. A difficult film to locate, even with the Internet at one's disposal, viewing it is a must for anybody interested in movie history. For Song at Midnight is widely considered to be the first Chinese horror film. A tragic tale, it is a loose adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera. And yet, it is so much more than just an adaptation. It uses Leroux's story as a foundation from which to create a universe of horror and regret.

In the beginning, we are introduced to a young actor named Sun, who has traveled with his acting troupe to an old theater where they are going to put on a show. The movie does not make it clear, but from my own research, I believe that the theater is located in or near Kaifeng, Henan Province. But no matter. They are a traveling theater group who must perform to eat. And so, Sun is given a part to a play that they will be performing. He goes off to be alone where he can rehearse in private. All of a sudden, a shadow appears, and there is singing. Looking around, Sun can't see him. But wait! It is singing the song that he must learn! The two engage in a duet wherein Sun is taught the song by this disembodied voice.

As a result of his lessons, the play is a hit. Sun returns to where he first heard the voice in hopes that he can thank whoever it was that helped him. He is called to the top floor where he finds a mysterious figure in a gigantic black cloak. He reveals himself as a real man named Song Dangping. Thirteen years ago, he was a revolutionary who gained too much attention and had to go into hiding. After three years, he decided to adopt a new identity, the Song Dangping persona, and become an actor. He fell in love with a woman named Miss Li. They were passionate together, but unfortunately Miss Li caught the attention of a local landlord named Tang. In a fit of jealousy, Tang had thugs throw nitric acid on Song's face one night when he was leaving the theater.

Some may complain that until now, the movie didn't flow very well. It certainly didn't have anything that would scare modern audiences. Well, despite its uneven pacing and atmosphere, this is a horror movie. It is at this point in the plot that the horror elements really begin to come into play. Take, for example, the scene where Song's bandages are first removed. Song is sitting in a chair all bandaged up with his family seated around him. As the doctor begins to remove his bandages, it starts to thunder outside. The thunder gets faster and faster, louder and louder. Finally, the bandages are removed, and the room is silent. Suddenly, a massive thunderclap mutes a horrified scream. Everybody in the room is treated with a dutch angle close up. Song stands up with his back towards the camera, heightening the suspense. He walks over to a mirror where we see his face for the first time. He is more disfigured and ugly than Lon Chaney was when he played the role. His face looks like it has been covered in raw meatloaf. And yet,there are his eyes, his nose, his mouth. We know we are looking at a face, even though it doesn't resemble one we have ever seen before. He screams out that he wants Miss Li to think that he is dead. That way, he will never have to reveal himself to her. So, a little girl runs over to her house in the midst of a thunderstorm where she delivers the terrible message. When Miss Li hears it, she loses her grip on sanity. Frantic music and violent camera shakes pursue her as she runs about the house. She finally collapses onto the floor with blood streaming out of her mouth. The framing, editing, pacing, and sound design of these scenes are recognizable pieces of the horror movie vernacular. They are designed to increase the blood pressure, sweat, and anxiety levels of the audience. Indeed, terror was the most important thing on the filmmakers' minds when these scenes were crafted.

It is from this brokenness that Song emerges as a tragic hero. He didn't know that Miss Li would react the way that she did when she heard the news of his fake death. And so, to comfort her, he sings to her every night. But something inside tells me that he also sings as a method of penitence for his mistakes which led to her insanity. It is here that Song begs Sun to help him. Sun agrees, and under Song's directions he goes to Miss Li and tells her not to worry. In her present condition, Miss Li thinks that Sun is actually Song, so she feels happy for the first time in years.

From there, Song helps Sun's struggling theater company by providing him with a play that he wrote himself entitled “Red Blooded." The play is a rousing success. However, Mr. Tang attends one of the shows. In a cruel twist, he sees an actress named Ludie, who happens to be Sun's lover, and falls for her. Just like he went after Miss Li ten years before, Mr. Tang pursues Ludie and even attempts to rape her. When Sun runs in and tries to save her, Mr. Tang, in a fit of jealous rage, shoots and kills Ludie. Song leaps down from the rafters and kills Mr. Tang in a fit of vengeance. Sadly, just like all tragic heroes, Song dies. He is mistaken for a villain by the police and is pursued by an angry mob into a tower (suspiciously similar to the final scene in Frankenstein). Having found out about his past revolutionary activities, the police intend to bring him in. Terrified for his life (but also of the thought that people may seem him the way he truly is) he commits suicide by jumping into the river.

And yet, after Song's body disappeared beneath the water, singing is heard. A familiar voice....

Song at Midnight is not only a vital piece of movie history, but also a fascinating curio. Here is a Chinese studio taking a Western story and reworking it into the context of their culture. It is similar to how Akira Kurosawa took the play “King Lear” and adapted it into Ran by setting it in feudal Japan and infusing it with Buddhist and Confucian morals. It is more than just an adaptation, it is a metamorphosis. From a simple tragedy, Song at Midnight takes The Phantom of the Opera and injects it with a sense of political consciousness. It inspired Chinese filmmakers for years. It even has been remade twice: once in the Sixties in Hong Kong, and again in Shanghai in 1995. This film represents a new age of Chinese cinema. By taking a European story and influence from American movies, the Chinese were able to make a film that was entirely their own. It is far from a masterpiece, but is still a priceless jewel of Asian cinema.

Apologies for a lack of pictures. It was almost impossible to find just the two that I used in this review.


My thanks to archive.org for making this and other fine movies available free for download.

You can download this movie here:

For downloadable subtitles, go here:
And NO!!! It's not a virus.


  1. Well, Nathanael, I made it over here finally. Your review is very in-depth. You make some good points about the horror elements coming a bit late in the film. I'm glad there is someone in our group who has seen and enjoyed this film.

  2. Same here!

    Early Chinese cinema in general is sorely overlooked by most cinephiles these days...

    I guess that's where we come it!

  3. Another beautiful Chinese film from the 1930s is "The Goddess." I highly recommend it. Available on archive.org.

  4. Haha! And no sooner did I post that recommendation than I looked to the right and saw that you know the film "The Goddess" very well. It is gorgeous, isn't it?

    1. I know, right?! It was one of the first films I wrote about on this site!