If sheer visual extravagance were enough, “The Phantom of the Theatre” would be a winner. Wai Man (aka Raymond) Yip’s horror movie, set in 1930s Shanghai, is extremely stylish, with lavish sets and costumes, swooning cinematography and a lushly romantic music score that’s ladled over the images like a rich gravy. Unfortunately, it also has a narrative, which ultimately looks back to “The Phantom of the Opera” but muddies up that classic’s straightforwardly old-fashioned story with a lot of inanities that western audiences won’t be nearly as willing to overlook as those back home.
The movie starts with an opulent “Queen of the Screen” contest that’s won by an older actress, though newcomer Meng Si Fan (Ruby Lin) cops a “Miss Photogenic” surprise award. She’s immediately approached by young writer-director Gu Wei Bang (Tony Yo-ning Yang) with script in hand. He has in mind shooting a horror film in a theatre that, thirteen years earlier, had been the site of a terrible tragedy: during a special birthday performance for Gu Wei arranged by his father, General Gu Ming Shan (Simon Yam), a troupe of acrobats led by an intense Jing Gang Shan and only recently arrived in the city, had been trapped in their dressing room by a fire and killed. Naturally the place was thought to be haunted by their spirits and left to fall into ruin. Now it’s been beautifully renovated, and Gu Wei is determined to show it off in all its restored glory.
Naturally things do not go well. A prologue has already shown a thief begin burned to death—from the inside out, no less—when he takes refuge from the police in the theatre. (A subplot depicts the medical examiner, played by Huang Huan, trying to figure out the cause of death under prodding from a comically frustrated investigator.) And when the shoot starts, others fall, starting with the leading man )Wu Xu Dong) and a sleazy tycoon who’s invested in the movie and has been looking to bed Meng Si Fan. A masked phantom turns up, too.
No spoilers here, but the explanation for all the ghostly goings-on turns out to strain credulity even under the most liberal genre standards. Ghosts, it turns out, are no match for the innovative chemical possibilities that a need for revenge will provide.
If the narrative twists grow increasingly hard to swallow, however, one can always feast one’s eyes on the sumptuous look of the picture. In addition to the luscious sets and costumes, this “Phantom” boasts some elaborate visual effects, which are no more realistic than the synthetic environment but are pretty impressive nevertheless. Against such a backdrop the actors aren’t required to do much more than adopt the right poses, which they do with a degree of seriousness that’s admirable, given the absurdity of the material. Lin is certainly as beautiful as her surroundings, and Yang cuts a handsome figure in his tailored white suit, while Yam exudes imperiousness as the martinet general with a roving eye.
Ultimately, though, your ability to enjoy “The Phantom of the Theatre” will depend on your willingness to abandon any expectation of narrative coherence and simply revel in the cinematic splendor of it all. There’s an apt comparison in the work of an American director who also did a offbeat take on “The Phantom of the Opera”—Brian De Palma, whose “Phantom of the Paradise” predated his breakthrough film, “Carrie” by two years. Yip’s picture resembles not that early De Palma effort, but the florid, semi-operatic films he made in the wake of “Carrie,” films that often sacrificed logic for sheer visual bravado but could be exhilarating nonetheless. Unfortunately, like too many of those pictures, Yip’s goes elephantine in the final stretch, tying itself in knots trying to resolve and explain everything before collapsing at the close.
If you’re willing to turn your brain off, however, “The Phantom of the Theatre” does afford some impressive eye candy along the way.