The Phantom Lover

The Phantom Lover (1995)
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Wu Chien Lien, Lei Huang
Extras: 2 Commentary Tracks, Docuemntary, Featurettes, Trailers, Photo Gallery

Whenever director Ronny Yu and cinematographer Peter Pau get together, viewers can be assured that the result will be a hauntingly beautiful film. Whether it is the "The Bride with White Hair", series or even "Warriors of Virtue" or the horror comedy "Bride Of Chucky," the duo always seems to complement each other perfectly to conjure up stunning visuals and intriguing storylines. Ronny Yu’s last film in Hong Kong before he came to Hollywood was "The Phantom Lover," which is now available on DVD from Tai Seng Video Marketing as one of their domestic releases. "The Phantom Lover" or "Ye ban ge sheng" as it is originally called, is widely regarded as Ronny Yu’s masterpiece and has not been seen very often here in the US due to the limited availability of the film. This makes the 2-disc DVD release we have in front of us all the more important and welcome.

The film tells the story of Song Danping (Leslie Cheung), a daring singer who is determined to bring Western theater arts to China. He is building a large theater in the middle of the Chinese countryside and stages Western plays. His progressive behavior is not welcome by all, however, despite the fact that every night all his theater seats are sold out. The simple folks are concerned about their traditions, the fact that Danping is luring their children – mostly the girls – to listen to decadent Western operas and to adore him. Especially in his role as Romeo in Shakespeare’s "Romeo & Juliet", Danping shines and his reputation is making its course through the country, attracting even more visitors from afar.

At the same time, Danping has a secret relationship with Yun Yan (Wu Chien Lien), the daughter of a highly respected local family. She is forced into an arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love and when he learns about her relationship with Danping, the disgruntled husband sets fire to the theater and abandons his own wife. What remains is the lore of Danping, who died in the fire, and Yun Yan, who has gone insane by the loss and often returns to the ruins of the theater to remember her lost love.

And so years pass, until one day, a broke troupe of stage artists move into the abandoned ruins of the theater. Wei Quing (Lei Huang) is a young aspiring singer who is very intrigued by the mystery surrounding the building and tries to learn everything about Danping. On his search he stumbles into the unexpected. Danping is alive and living in the theater still! Disfigured by the flames he does not dare to show his face, which also prevents him from contacting Yun Yan, the love of his life, while he sings to her on rainy nights from a hidden retreat every time she somberly visits the theater. To help Yun Yan overcome her pain, Danping decides upon a plan. He teaches the young singer and soon the theater is once again filled with people who are eager to witness the glorious presentation of "Romeo & Juliet." Wei Quing is such a good scholar actually, that even Yun Yan is fooled into believing, he is Danping, who finally returned to her, to sweep her off her feet. But how long can they keep up the charade?

"The Phantom Lover" is a mix between "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Phantom of the Opera" with a little bit of "Immortal Beloved" sprinkled in. It is a film that plays like a fairy tale, rich with stunning visuals and vivid images, as well as a hauntingly beautiful sound track. It is a true romance with many heartfelt moments that are heavy with emotions and tragedy as we watch two lives that are ultimately destined for each other, miss each other as a result of personal pride and social barriers. Director Ronny Yu captures the atmosphere of the story with images that are artistically framed while Peter Pau weaves a tapestry of color palettes that is beautiful and rich. Parts of the film are shot in monochromatic sepia tones, giving it a vintage quality, replacing the footage with bold color images as the story progresses so that the viewer literally feels the emotions depicted. Only few romances have managed to convey emotions with such an eloquent visual vocabulary and although the film lacks slightly in the story department, the hauntingly beautiful cinematography and direction easily makes up for it.

Tai Seng Video Marketing is presenting "The Phantom Lover" in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD in a transfer that is not <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets. Still, the transfer has a very good level of detail and what is more important, the print is mostly clean and free of distracting blemishes. Although occasional the occasional mar and dust mark is evident, the transfer manages to create a clean and clear image throughout. The film’s monochrome scenes look a bit flat, as the contrast of the footage does not allow for deep blacks, and the compression in these scenes creates a slightly noisy image. However, as soon as the film switches to its glorious color images, the transfer becomes a bold and colorful representation of the original movie. Deep and solid blacks, good highlights and finely delineated colors make up the image without bleeding or noise. Given the strong use of subtle hues, as well as strong colors, in the film’s photography, the DVD becomes a beautiful representation of the movie that is gorgeous to behold and does full justice to the powerful cinematography. Shadows are well defined and never break up, and together with the deep blacks, it gives the image good visual depth. The compression has been well applied to the material and apart form the opening minutes where noise is evident, the DVD features a presentation that is free of compression artifacts.

On the audio side, the DVD features <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio tracks in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as an English dub in mono. The surround tracks are very well done and feature a wide sound stage with good integration of the surround channels, enhancing the haunting mood of the theater, as well as the musical presentations performed. The dynamic range and frequency response of the audio tracks is also very good, creating a rich presentation that makes very good use of the format’s capabilities. The English dub is expectedly disappointing with poor synchronization and poor voice acting. The poor technical quality of the track makes it even less appealing so my recommendation – as always – is to view the film in Cantonese with English subtitles, which provides the best results.

The DVD also contains two separate audio <$commentary,commentary track>s. The first one features director Ronny Yu, who delivers an engaging and interesting commentary on the entire scope of the film, it’s origins, its characters and many other aspects of the production. Cinematographer Peter Pau – who just recently received a well-deserved Academy Award for his work on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" – makes a rare appearance in the second <$commentary,commentary track> and it quickly become apparent that viewers are in for a treat. Not only is Peter Pau one of the best cinematographers in the world, he is also an engaging commentator. Throughout the film he discusses technical issues surrounding the film in a way that is easy to follow and always interesting, while sprinkling in enough anecdotes and wits to keep it exciting. His commentary is a very welcome addition to the DVD that offers incredible insight from his very unique perspective, colored with his extensive experience.

The second disc of the set contains a number of exciting extras, such as a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary on the film’s production. Featuring interviews with director Ronny Yu, cinematographer Peter Pau and cast member, such as Leslie Cheung, this documentary is a great addition to the disc. Footage from the sets, combined with commentary about how the production came about and what the filmmakers’ approach to the subject matter was, is nicely complemented by light-hearted anecdotes from the set. Two other featurettes further elaborate on certain aspects of the film, filled with behind-the-scenes footage from the set and interview segments. The features are rounded out by a selection of trailers.

"The Phantom Lover" is a feast for the eyes and ears, and this DVD is theway to experience this film. The magic of the filmmakers’ skills and mastery, and the sumptuous visual qualities of the film, weaved in with the sensitive story create a fairy tale like romance that doesn’t fail to impress – even more so once you realize that it is indeed based on real events. "The Phantom Lover" proves once again just how visually driven many Hong Kong films are and that it is indeed possible to create a poetic film with a solid story and stunning imagery. Do yourself a favor and check out this DVD. You won’t regret it!