phantomofthetheatreOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Phantom of the Theatre is a Chinese horror/thriller film directed by Raymond Yip, starring Ruby Lin, Tony Yang, Simon Yam, and Huang Lei. Set in Shanghai in the 1930s, it tells the story of a group of theater actors who work to re-open a once grand and palatial playhouse which had been destroyed in a mysterious fire 13 years previously. The play’s director and young lead actress are in love, and have ambitions of stardom, but before long mysterious deaths begin occurring among the crew, leading some to believe that the vengeful spirits of the actors who died in the original fire are seeking revenge.

The score for Phantom of the Theatre is by the Chinese composer Zhiyi Chen (who also uses the alias Yu Peng), and is a sumptuous Gothic romantic orchestral delight. It splits its time, more or less evenly, between two styles of music: dark, creepy, but still theme based horror music, and moments of grand, sweeping melodrama and romance to capture the doomed love affair between the director and his ingénue. A recurring six note theme, which is introduced during “Destiny (Intro),” continues to assert itself throughout the score; its use as a brutal fanfare in the quite unsettling “A Curse By Death” is impressive, as is the accordion and guitar arrangement in “Miss”. There are also a couple of intentionally old-fashioned classical-sounding cues that capture the faded glory of the Shanghai theater, such as the waltz-like and grandiose “The Phantom Theatre,” the get-up-and-go energy of “Action!,” the sounds of traditional Chinese opera in “Coming to the Town” and “The Show,” and the soothing “Ligong Theatre”.

Unnerving ghostly vocals, undulating string sustains, eerie metallic synth textures, and scary stingers typify cues such as “The Thief,” “The Devil Inside,” “Anatomy,” “Nightmare,” “Peep,” “Distorted,” “Exploration,” “Kidnapping,” “Hostage,” and others. These ideas are effective at creating a creepy mood, but with the exception of a few of the more unusual vocal techniques, they are not especially interesting or innovative from a compositional point of view. Instead, where the score really shines is in its moments of broad romance. Cues such as “Meet Unexpectedly,” “Ambiguous,” and the lovely “Hazy Love” have a sweetness and innocence to them, with Chen’s piano writing having a touch of the French New Wave. Elsewhere, “Whispers of Love” weaves together the Love theme and the Destiny theme as a sublime violin solo, while in “Untouchable Love” the romantic writing reaches its passionate zenith, a celebration of rhapsodic piano writing, near-orgasmic vocals, and swooning strings.

Chen also provides the score with a couple of decent action and chase sequences, ranging from the unexpectedly vibrant and exciting “Sexual Assault” with its string runs and expressive woodwind flourishes, to the turbulent “Escape” which makes especially excellent use of the choir alongside all the throbbing strings, and the oppressively dramatic “One Movie, One Dream”. The score ends on a soft, almost regretful tone, with soothing voices leading performances of both the Love theme and the Destiny theme through “Shatter (Outro)” and “Farewell.” Unfortunately, the biggest drawback to the score is its choppiness; a large number of cues are 90 seconds or less in length, meaning that for the vast majority of the score Chen has very little time to make anything more than a very basic impression. It is only when he is afforded a real length of time that the music has any meat on its bones, and that happens with frustrating infrequency.

The score is bookended by two outstanding original songs, both sung in Chinese, and both based around the Destiny theme: “The Mist,” which is performed with breathy emotion by Taiwanese superstar A-Lin and is anchored by sumptuous cello and piano writing, and “Dense Fog,” which is performed with warmth and tenderness by Chinese-Canadian singer Eric Juu. Phantom of the Theatre has, quite rightly, been the recipient of quite a bit of critical praise in 2016, and despite its flaws I certainly recommend it for anyone wanting to dip their toes into Chinese film music. It is available as an import from all the usual Asian retailers like Yesasia and Play Asia, as well as via decent streaming and download services like iTunes.

Track Listing:

  • The Mist (performed by A-Lin) (5:35)
  • The Thief (1:13)
  • The Devil Inside (1:06)
  • Destiny (Intro) (1:13)
  • Anatomy (1:39)
  • At the Back (0:12)
  • Cankered (1:09)
  • Heartbeat (0:45)
  • Nightmare (0:50)
  • The Phantom Theatre (2:23)
  • The Character (0:30)
  • Action! (1:12)
  • Love Affair (1:27)
  • Peep (0:30)
  • Meet Unexpectedly (1:03)
  • A Curse by Death (2:35)
  • Ambiguous (1:17)
  • Sexual Assault (2:59)
  • Distorted (1:41)
  • Escape (1:49)
  • Destruction (0:41)
  • The Mirror (1:45)
  • Investigate (0:49)
  • Hazy Love (2:06)
  • Whispers of Love (1:26)
  • Mutation (0:20)
  • One Movie, One Dream (2:16)
  • The Face (0:46)
  • Miss (0:55)
  • Call From Death (1:14)
  • Untouchable Love (3:51)
  • Premeditate (0:26)
  • Deceive (2:15)
  • Crossed In Love (1:18)
  • Exploration (2:12)
  • Kidnapping (1:26)
  • Coming to the Town (1:08)
  • Ligong Theatre (1:48)
  • The Show (2:07)
  • The Disaster (2:10)
  • Drop Scene (1:11)
  • Expose (2:40)
  • Hostage (1:20)
  • Betrayal and Redemption (2:00)
  • Shatter (Outro) (2:18)
  • Farewell (1:01)
  • Dense Fog (performed by Eric Juu) (5:06)

Click Music, 78 minutes 00 seconds.

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