Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > STREET ANGEL [MALU TIANSHI] – Luting He



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director-Actor-Screenplay writer Yuan Mushi was seeking to direct the second film of his career. As part of his vision, he wrote a screenplay in support of China’s “Left Wing Movement” in cinema, which sought reveal the harsh struggle and bitter life of the poor urban underclass. Filmed during tumultuous times against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese war, the film proved to be trendsetting by its innovative use of thematic music, singing, and choreographed art. Yuan secured financial backing and distribution support from the Mingxing Film Company. Yuan would also direct the film, and brought in a fine cast, including Zhou Xuan as Xiao Hong, Zhao Huishen as Xiao Yun, Zhao Dan as Chen Shaoping, and Wei Heling as Wang. The film would be the company’s last as it was shut down by the war.

The film is set in 1937 in the slums of Shanghai China. Chen Shaoping, is a trumpet player in the marching band who falls in love with his neighbor, a songstress named Xiao Hong. She and her older sister Xiao Yun have recently fled the Japanese invasion of Manchuria seeking refuge in the south. The two sisters are desperate, impoverished, and thankfully taken in by a couple that own a tea house. They become indentured servants as the price of their board. Xiao Yun is forced to become a streetwalker, while Xiao Hong works as a singer. The film offers a tragic commentary of poor people, and by extension, China beset by forces out of their control, which deny them the happiness they seek. Eventually Hong is sold to a wealthy patron and their escape ultimately leads to her sister Yun dying as Wang cannot afford a doctor. Yun last words of “ants, ants, ants” is a metaphor for the hopeless, ceaseless toil of their lives as others stamp on them beneath their feet. The film was a great success until the war shut down the theaters. Today it is ranked 11th on the list of the 100 Best Chinese Films at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards.

Director Yuan Muzhi enjoyed his collaboration with composer He Luting on his first film, Dūshì Fēngguāng, in 1935, and solicited him to take on the scoring assignment. He explained his vison to He that he was determined to use music as a vehicle for social and political commentary. While the film’s personal and more intimate narrative followed the tragic romance of Xiao Hong and Chen Shaoping, it also in a broader, transpersonal way spoke to the exploitation, subjugation and humiliation of China as it is dismembered and attacked by foreign imperialist forces. Upon viewing the film He conceived his score as a lament, which would have to express both the personal narrative of Hong and Shaoping, but also the larger forces operating beyond their control.

He’s soundscape is anchored by two songs, now immortalized in Chinese popular culture. The first is “Sì Shí Zhī Gē” (Song of the Four seasons), offers a sentimental, and very personal love song, which speaks to the love of a woman whose man has parted due to war. It is a song of longing, of a woman separated from her lover by cruel and heartless forces operating beyond her control. She is forced to flee south, where she dreams of her home, her parents, and her man, who she imagines is suffering as the war wages in the frozen north. She hopes to send him winter clothing she has made, and expresses an allegory to the legendary wife Meng Jiangnü whose lover died performing forced labor on the Great Wall, and whose weeping caused the Great Wall to collapse. In the larger sense Hong sings of not just for herself, but for others like her affected by the war. The song offers a lament and consists of four stanzas, one for each season shot against a backdrop of brutal fighting on the battlefield as Japan wages war on China.

The second song is “Tiānyáhǎijiǎo De Nǚ Gēshǒu” (Songstress at the Ends of the Earth), which offers another song of love and loss. It serves as a Love Theme for Xiao Hong and Chen Shaoping. The song bonds and unites them as lovers, with its first iteration revealing her singing, while he from across the alley accompanies on an erhu. Despite their bliss, the lyrics are portentous, informing us of the tears of parting, entrapment, and pain that has yet to come. Later in the film Shaoping comes to mistakenly believe that Hong has agreed to marry the thug Mr. Gu after she sings their love song to him, not knowing that she was forced to do so. He is hurt, withdraws, and they become estranged. Later when she sings the song again in the restaurant the camera zooms in on Shaoping’s face to reveal his anger and anguish.

Both songs are lyrical and speak of personal woe, expressing unending cycles of sorrows. For “Song of the Four Seasons He Luting adapted the score from two urban folk ballads from Suzhou, “Crying on the Seventh Seven Day Cycle” (哭七七) and “One Who Knows Me Well” (知心客) while “The Wandering Songstress” was derived from tanci (a traditional story–telling performance originating in Suzhou) using traditional elements and with accompaniment by Chinese music instruments, including Erhu, Pipa, and Sanxian. According to scholar Jean Ma, the differences between the two songs reveal two separate fates for Xiao Hong: she could either gain security and status submitting to become the possession of the wealthy teahouse client, Mr. Gu, or follow her heart and become the lover of the poor musician, Xiao Chen. There are thematic differences in the articulation of the two songs, with Xiao Hong demonstrating her values and affection singing “The Wandering Songstress,” while showing more resistance in her performance of “Song of the Four Seasons”. Since there is no commercial album, Cue titles will describe the film scene with film time indices.

The film opens silently to the Star Film Co. Production logo at 00:17 and we commence the “Main Title” with swirling strings energico with contrapuntal woodwinds animato, which supports the roll of the opening credits. The musical narrative is very spirited and soars upwards as a camera takes up a tall building. At 00:50 the drama subsides and we flow into an idyllic exposition led by woodwinds pastorale as we see couples strolling in a Shanghai Park. At 01:06 the music shifts again gaining vibrancy as we see the bustling city streets. At 01:12 a stately “Rule Britannia” sounds as we see British troops on parade past a British bank, joined at 01:27 by dire horns as we focus on the statues of the British Lions at its entry. At 01:34 musical solemnity replete with tolling bells supports a montage revealing the architecture of many western churches and buildings, which fill the Shanghai skyline. At 02:04 a surge by strings energico usher in a celebratory musical narrative, which supports a new montage where we see westerners partying and dancing in nightclubs. We conclude at 02:28 in silence with a camera shot of a huge western built tower, an emblem of imperialism, which dominates the city skyline.

At 02:51 we segue into the film proper with “Parade” atop rattling snare drums, which support a professional band of Chinese men in western outfits carrying western instruments marching in a wedding parade ahead of the bride’s palanquin through the city streets. A procession follows supported by beating gongs and a second band of musicians with Chinese instruments, which bathes us in festive traditional Chinese auras. At 03:48 the Chinese western band leader strikes up the band with a traditional western marching tune. At 03:57 we see Shaoping with his trumpet happily marching with the band. Countless people smile and watch the procession. Comedy joins as Shaoping peaks into the palanquin to see a homely cross-eyed bride, and then playfully tries to uncross his eyes to his buddy Wang. Hong comes out on a balcony and waves to Shaoping, which makes him very happy. Returning inside she is chastised by her boss, to whom she is a slave. At 07:11 we segue into “The Song of the Four Seasons,” a score highlight where Hong sings an aching lament for past times now lost. Her boss orders her to accommodate a patron’s request that she sing the traditional song. He opens playing an introduction by erhu as Mr. Gu enters and sits, and Hong joins to sing the song so full of lament. We are transported months earlier to the north where we see Hong sowing interspersed with images of battlefield violence and carnage. We flow back to shots of her in the present with a leering Mr. Gu, juxtaposed with idyllic images of the past, as we see the flow of seasons. Afterwards she is ordered to join Mr. Gu at his table.

We shift to the barbershop where Shaoping joins his three buffoonish barber friends. He asks two buddies to join him outside and at 11:16 we segue into “Shaoping’s March” as he blasts his trumpet with a military call to arms, which begins a playful march with his friends through the city streets. He arrives at his apartment, which lies across the alley from Hong’s, and ascends. He shares good times with friends, but stumbles in his calligraphy labelling a group photo of he, Wang, and the three barbers, which he wishes to title; “Sharing prosperity and difficulty together”. He has forgotten the character for “difficulty,” but Wang solves the problem after finding the character in yesterday’s newspaper. At 15:50 we segue into “Shaoping’s Serenade” where Hong signals Shaoping with light reflecting off her mirror, and he happily grabs his trumpet and signals back. He unfurls the curtains and then in a playful pantomime performs a magic trick for her, much to her delight, pulling an apple out of midair and then tossing it to her. His second toss misses the mark and hits her sister Yun on the head. Three hallow wood sounds follow as Shaoping taps his three gawking friend’s heads as they duck for cover.

Later at 18:53 it is night and we segue atop a flute triste into “Yun’s Sadness” where we see her ready for another night working as a prostitute. A brief respite of joy enters as a fleeting image of Shaoping, the man she loves appears. Sadly, she knows he can never be hers as he loves her sister Hong, and she is a prostitute. At 19:18 we segue into “Shaoping and Hong” where we see the two together on her apartment roof. Festive Chinese woodwinds support with a playful dance of delight as they cross a plank bridge he built to his apartment. At 19:47 she loses her balance, is steadied by him, yet he falls supported by a gong clash catching a power line. A bubbling flute joined by a sardonic bassoon speak to the comedy of the moment. The festive Chinese musical narrative resumes as he climbs up and rejoins Hong. The festive music is sustained as she helps him change into his band uniform. We end with playful musical comedy as they play a gag on their friend Wang. At 21:34 we segue atop a forlorn oboe into “Yun’s Troubles” as we see her evading a policeman. The festive and happy-go-lucky musical narrative resumes at 21:47 when Shaoping, Hong and Wang come playfully down the street. The music darkens on bassoon as Yun confronts them and orders Hong home. He leaves pouting carried by a darting flute. Yun attempts to seduce Shaoping, but a gong clash supports his rejection and pursuit of Hong. Yun’s sad woodwind motif resumes as Wang, who secretly loves her, comes out of the shadows and gives her a cigarette.

The next morning Yun returns home, is slapped by her owner’s wife for not making any money and ordered back on the street. Hong places her chirping bird’s cage in her window, which awakens Shaoping who whistles to her from his apartment window. We segue into “Songstress at the Ends of the Earth,” a beautiful score highlight at 25:37 as he whistles the introduction of the song Songstress at the Ends of the Earth, which elicits her to sing the melody. He then grabs his erhu and begins playing the melody, and she joins, this time singing the song lyrics. It is a blissful moment, which belies to song’s lament and sadness. Sadly, an angry Yun ends the romantic rapture at 28:43, silencing Hong as Shaoping pulls close his curtain. At 31:28 we segue into “Shaoping’s Anger” when his barber friend informs him that Hong accompanied Mr. Gu for lunch and received bolts of cloth from him. Shaoping is furious, storms out propelled by a furioso led by strings irato, and returns to his apartment. He finds Hong smiling and flashing her mirror from her apartment, but he pulls the curtain and lays in bed stewing with anger as He unleashes a tempest. At 32:28 the music darkens as Hong runs up the stairs to see Shaoping only to find the three grim faces of the barbers glaring at her. As she passes them and heads to see Shaoping, He sow mounting tension until 33:00 when she blasts his trumpet to wake him. He throws her gift of a shirt out the window, they fight, and she storms out after they both say they hate each other. The aftermath is supported by silence as Shaoping regrets his anger and dives into his bed, while Hong picks up the shirt soiled by muddy water and weeps in her sister Yun’s arms.

The next day Shaoping and Wang are eating at the restaurant. Shaoping is drunk, and when Hong enters, he orders her to come to him. She refuses, which makes him angry and her boss then orders her to come down a sing “Songstress at the Ends of the Earth,” her and Shaoping’s love song. We segue into “Hong Sings For Shaoping” a score highlight at 36:18 with her boss playing the intro on erhu. Yet her singing of their song is not its usual blissful rendering, instead one fill with heartache. We see in her mind flashbacks of her singing happily to him from her balcony as he looks on lovingly. He then also has a flashback with deeply felt regret as she begins to cry. At 38:38 Shaoping slams his fist on the table, ending her singing as he storms out angrily. Later, Mr. Gu is visiting Hong’s owners and Hong and Yun listen outside the door as they are curious. At 40:10 we segue into “The Purchase” atop ominous strings full of foreboding as Mr. Gu hands the owners money for the purchase of Hong. As he departs a romance for strings emotes from his perspective as we see him tearing off petals from a white rose (symbol of purity) one by one. The petals fall to the floor and he steps on them, which in Chinese culture portends that bad luck waits for Hong. Hong is frantic and asks Yun what she should do, and she counsels to seek the help of Shaoping. Hong is petulant and refuses and at 41:23 we segue into “Hong Seeks Shaoping” atop their Love Song melody on strings d’Amore with piano adornment, which informs us of her decision. We see Shaoping and Wang playing cards in his apartment and after a knock, Hong enters sheepishly. Shaoping is cold and curt, which causes Hong to start crying. Wang pushes Shaoping to go to her, yet when he hugs her, she slaps him repeatedly, but he takes it and apologizes profusely. This contrition wins her heart and they again embrace in love with shared tears. We close with he and Wang devising a plan to save her.

They seek out a lawyer, and are awestruck at his ornate office on the top floor of a tall building. They quickly discover that the poor cannot afford such services and so leave with despair. He takes Hong back to her home and promises to come for her later and take her away to a new apartment in another city district. At 52:28 we segue into “Shaoping’s Joy” where he realizes that they will at last live together and he is ecstatic, leaping full of happiness, which He supports with a celebratory joy. At 52:43 he grabs his trumpet and sounds a call from his window, which elicits his three barber friends to come to him. He then playfully begins playing a marching rhythm on his snare drum, which supports his three friends precision marching into his apartment, standing at attention, and saluting him. Hong runs to her window, but Wang pulls close the curtain and at 53:40 we segue into “The Performance” as we see Shaoping, Wang and the three barbers performing a play as silhouettes lighted behind the curtain. He supports with an over the top, rousing marica esuberante much to Hong and Yun’s delight. As they walk to their suitcase the march subsides, replaced tenderly by a solo flute delicato as the sisters hug. Yun counsels for her to go as they are good men that will take care of her. The next day Hong’s owner seeks out Mr. Gu to advise him that Hong had run away.

They celebrate their engagement using one of the barber’s earring as a ring, and then have a common law wedding in the apartment, followed by the celebration dinner with their friends. Shaoping asks her to sing, buts she says she is dizzy and asks instead if he would perform a magic, which he does to their amazement. The next day at 1:02:07 “Trying to Make a Living” we segue into Wang selling newspapers as Shaoping plays his trumpet accompanying a festive Chinese music band playing on a balcony. Across town the three barbers are threatened with eviction if they do not pay their back rent, yet business is very slow. In another scene we see Wang counselling Yun to run away with him, as he loves her, yet she is ashamed of her past as a prostitute and refuses him. He walks away broken-hearted and she accepts her fate and returns to the streets. At 1:04:30 an fleeting orchestral surge channeling Beethoven supports Yun once again confronted by a policeman. In their apartment Shaoping is telling a ghost story to Hong and Wang when Yun walks in. Shaoping is not hospitable, but when a policeman enters and inquires if Yun lives here, he grudgingly says yes for Hong and Wang’s sake. The next day events begin to spiral out of control as they are threatened with eviction for back rent, while the three barbers are also threatened with eviction from their barbershop for back rent.

At 1:13:17 we segue into “Rescue Plan” as Wang plays a drum while Shaoping plays his trumpet in a festive piece to try to lure in customers to the barbershop with the announcement of a big sale. It ends sadly and comedically with no one showing up except a bunch of bald-headed Buddhist monks. Yet they make one last effort and resume playing when the land lord is seen and forcibly escorted in. They give him a horrendous haircut, which ends with him erupting in a firestorm and evicting them. Hong’s former owner sees Shaoping flee the barbershop, follows him and locates where he is living. He then reports to Mr. Gu that Hong is most likely staying with Shaoping. The next day Gu and some men go to take a look for themselves. Yun hides Hong in the loft just as the men batter down the door. Her former owner throws her against the wall and demands to know where Hong is. Yun throws a knife at him and misses, which enrages him. He throws the knife at her and mortally wounds her. They search the loft, but find she had escaped out the window. At a restaurant Hong tells them what happened and Wang believes Yun was kidnapped. He wants to go and take revenge, but Shaoping bars his way and says he should not fight for such a woman, which results in Wang slapping Shaoping’s face. The camera shifts to the group photo which says “Sharing prosperity and difficulty together,” a memory of better times. A tearful Shaoping realizes his error, hugs Wang, and apologizes. As Wang enters their apartment, he finds Yun dying, picks her up and takes her to the group. He then runs off to fetch a doctor while Shaoping tries to have her drink so water. Shaoping apologizes to her and says Wang has gone to fetch a doctor. Yet it is too late as Yun utters her last words; “ants, ants, ants” and then expires. We conclude at 1:27:59 with “Wang’s Pain” as he returns and said the doctor would not come as he did not have enough money. He supports with a molto tragico lament as the camera looks in through a lattice of windows, which suggest they are trapped in a jail, in a life, where there is no hope or escape. The final film shot is a reprise of the huge white western built tower, an enduring emblem of imperialism, which dominates the Shanghai skyline.

Director Yuan Muzhi had a clear vision for his film, which he intended to provide a compelling social commentary. Composer He Luting understood that he would have to speak to the intimate narrative of the romance of Xiao Hong and Chen Shaoping, the tragedy love of Wang and Yun, while in a broader, transpersonal way, also speak to the exploitation, subjugation and humiliation of China. Upon viewing the film He conceived his score as a lament, which would have to express both the personal narratives but also the larger forces operating beyond their control. His score is sparsely spotted, preferring to not intrude into director Yuan’s potent social narrative. He masterfully used silence, to inform us of people whose words are unheard or not deemed of value or significance. But when his music it is heard, it is persuasive and emotionally impactful. Two songs, “Song of the Four Seasons,” and “Songstress at the Ends of the Earth” were masterfully conceived and executed, offering a potent and aching lament, which permeated the film’s narrative. Indeed, the songs have become legend in Chinese culture and earned He, immortality. Folks, He brought Hong, Shaoping, Yun and Wang to life for me, creating a bond and sympathy, which was poignant and compelling. I believe the score to be a fine example of early Chinese cinema and given that there is no commercial album, I highly encourage you to take in the film, which resides in the public domain. I hope that someday a film score label will seek to bring music from early Chinese cinema to the world. Until that day.

Track Listing:

  • Not Available

Music composed and conducted by He Luting. Orchestrations by He Luting. Song lyrics by Tian Han. Score produced by He Luting.

  1. Frank Yan
    March 21, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    There must be some translation issues with the song titles. I believe the original names of the two songs you mentioned “Song of the Four seasons” and “Songstress at the Ends of the Earth” should be “四季歌” (Sì Jì Gē) and “天涯歌女” (Tiānyá Gēnǚ).

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