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The Devil Music Ensemble vs. The Red Heroine
Silent kung-fu classic at Cinema Center
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When film-goers of the silent movie era packed the big movie palaces back in the 1920s, they could usually count on hearing a musician or ensemble scoring the film live. Sometimes the musicians played a prepared score, or sometimes they improvised with popular tunes of the day. Houses with the big pipe organs (like the one at the Embassy) could deliver the full orchestral experience, and even throw in some sound effects.
But audiences who watched the Chinese silent martial arts saga Red Heroine in 1929 Shanghai… who knows what they heard.
“There’s nothing written about that,” says Jonah Rapino of the Devil Music Ensemble. “The film has both Chinese and English titles, so maybe they were trying to export it. The British were in China then, so it could have been traditional Western style accompaniment, or a combination of Chinese folk and Western… who knows?”
But odds are, whatever audiences heard back then, it sounded nothing like what Fort Wayne audiences will hear when the Devil Music Ensemble accompanies Red Heroine at the Cinema Center Tech on Saturday, September 13.
The Devil Music Ensemble is a Boston-based trio that composes and performs their own original scores to silent films. Rapino and his bandmates Brandon Woods and Tim Nylander — all multi-instrumentalists — have several international tours under their collective belt, and their 2006 tour with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde included a stop in Fort Wayne. Those who saw the show know a little of what to expect from the Devil Ensemble Music experience; those that missed it… well, a black and white description doesn’t do it justice, but the group uses an eclectic mix of styles and sounds to create their scores to these silent films, performing live while the film is rolling.
The silent film era has its share of lost treasures, but Red Heroine is a rarity even by those standards. Made in Shanghai in 1929, it is the only intact, surviving feature length martial arts movie of the era. “There are other silent Chinese martial arts films, but they’re not complete,” Rapino explains. “But this is the only one that’s feature length, beginning to end, the whole story, the whole thing. It just seems so improbable, you know? How could that be?”
But, as Rapino explains, most silent films didn’t get much respect in any country once sound came along. Add a cultural revolution that banned quite a lot of movies, and it’s easier to understand why Red Heroine might be last of its kind.
Many of the Shanghai film makers moved to Hong Kong during China’s revolution, and turned that city into a Mecca for martial arts movies in the 60s and 70s. Those movies, and more recent takes on them like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, are basically the children of Red Heroine, an epic adventure tale of heroism and revenge set during the Tang dynasty, with sword fights, flying warriors, evil villains, and invading armies.
The story of how the Devil Music Ensemble came to be scoring Red Heroine is as much of an epic as the film itself. They had heard of Red Heroine while casting around for ideas, and scoring a silent martial arts film sounded interesting. It had been shown at a UCLA-organized film festival back in 2003, but when they contacted the programmer, she told them not to even bother — Red Heroine belonged to a Bejing company called Poly Asian, and the festival organizers had gone through all sorts of flips and twists to get the movie. “For a year and a half we tried to contact Poly Asian or basically any other source for the film, and failed utterly,” says Rapino. “In that time, we did both Nosferatu and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So we had kind of given up on the idea.”
But later, Rapino was at a kung-fu film festival in Boston’s Chinatown called Films At the Gate, organized by the Boston Asian Community Development Corporation. The president of the company suggested the Devil Music Ensemble should do a live soundtrack for a silent martial arts film for the next festival. Did Rapino know of any silent martial arts films? “I said, ‘well, I know of one, and we’ve been dreaming about doing it…” An employee of the organization who spoke Chinese volunteered to start calling Poly Asian, and things finally started happening. Still, after a corporate restructuring at Poly Asian and numerous other problems, it took well over a year before Devil Ensemble Music got the go-ahead. “It was a hair-pulling exercise in almost futility that had a good ending,” laughs Rapino.
One of the things that kept Red Devil Music pursuing Red Heroine was the opportunity to explore elements of traditional Chinese folk music, something the musicians had never tried before. “It opened up a new world of studying and listening,” Rapino says. “There’s a traditional folk song we’re playing called ‘Ni Shang.’ It’s actually really spooky music, and we used that straight up arrangement with our instruments for a spooky flashback moment in the film.”
But as always, Red Devil Music added their own thing to the score, adding classical music and even elements of 70s kung-fu movies. “On top of all those things, you have our Devil Music sensibilities,” says Rapino. “The music is always serving its role. It’s never going outside and doing it’s own thing. We always balance our own compositions on what’s really happening (on screen).”
“This film definitely has a certain tone. The plot is about this invading army wreaking havoc and being evil, and there are a lot more dark moments in this film than light moments. A lot of the tone is the heroes struggling through adversity, people being dominated. That very much lent to our composition.”
The Devil Music Ensemble presents Red Heroine
Saturday, September 13 at Cinema Center @ Indiana Tech, 7:30PM
Tickets are $12. General Admission, $10.
Tickets are available at either Cinema Center location during box office hours. (Box office is open 30 min. before each show)