The Red Envelope is a short fantasy film from 2013 directed by Owen Schwartzbard. Opening in 1920s China, it stars Matthew Gallenstein as Roy – an American living in China – who comes across an ancient Chinese curse. At the centre of the curse is the ghost of a woman, Xiao Ling (Yuanyuan Lu). She has been cursed because of some terrible event carried out in a past life. What this deed is must be discovered in order for the curse to lifted and for Xiao Ling to be at peace. The film follows the pair as they move back through time (to her various past lives) searching for the moment when the woman’s fate was sealed. The orchestral score for The Red Envelope is a collaboration between composer/songwriter/producer Jorge Corante and Spanish composer Andrés de la Torre. Both composers have written for a number of movie projects, with de la Torre’s score for the 2006 animated film Gritos en el Pasillo (Going Nuts) receiving two nominations at the Jerry Goldsmith International Film Music Awards.
The score centres around a strong central theme that is associated with the spirit of Xiao Ling and this theme recurs at key moments throughout the film. The film itself opens with a beautiful scene: a peaceful canal runs through a tranquil Chinese village, willow trees draped all around, the waterway is spanned by a Moon bridge. A man and woman climb to the topmost part of the bridge and exchange glances: it’s clear that this moment is the end of a journey but further meaning isn’t clear. Over this opening scene the central Oriental-flavoured theme is stated for the first time (“Opening”). Played on solo cello, the theme is full of sadness suggesting that the story of the couple about to unfold is not a happy one. This theme then appears at several key moments throughout the film: it emphasises the time travel aspect of the storyline being played by traditional Chinese instruments in “Past Lives”, and there’s an achingly beautiful fragmented statement of the theme in “Filicide” (a bit of an origin-of-the-curse spoiler) where Xiao Ling realises the consequence of the terrible deed she is responsible for (and where the curse begins). The main theme receives it’s fullest and boldest statement in the final track, “Aftermath”, where woodwinds and strings begin with a subdued statement of the theme before the full ensemble of Chinese instruments and strings provide a beautiful release of emotions as Xiao Ling is freed from her curse. Echoing the start of the film, music and visuals (beautifully shot by John Nodorft) provide a memorable ending to the story but, whereas the theme opened the film with a feeling of melancholy, now the theme emphasises the release of Xiao Ling (as well as Roy), transporting her on her way out of limbo and into the afterlife. There’s a final echo of the theme on solo woodwinds as we see Roy back in his own time, Xiao Ling just a memory. The tone of the score is balanced by several dark passages; menacing soundscapes blending metallic percussive elements, tolling bells and low-range rumblings (typical of numerous Japanese-style horror films) appear early in the film (“The Ghost”) when we are still uncertain of the nature of the spirit, and sustained dark orchestral tones begin “Filicide” and add weight to the scene where Xiao Ling’s actions set the path for the future.
The composers’ central theme – together with some visually beautiful scenes – will be a lasting memory from The Red Envelope. Because of the limited time available to tell the story, the use of the theme to emphasise the plight of Xiao Ling as well as how the theme is changed to suit the needs of the story helps get the ideas of the film across quickly. However, the film feels rushed in places, trying to fit in too much into the time available. The score suffers too. With more time for scenes to be developed, the thematic ideas could have been developed further, given space to play to their full potential. The final scene of the film is one of the few places where this time is made available and, as a consequence, the theme is developed fully and offers the musical highlight of the score (“Aftermath”). For me, Corante and de la Torre’s central theme is one of the highlights of 2014 so far and is definitely one to seek out. The Red Envelope score can be listened in full and/or purchased from Bandcamp and Owen Schwartzbard’s film can be watched HERE.
- Opening (1:02)
- The Curse (0:40)
- The Ghost (1:05)
- Past Lives (1:03)
- The Fight and The Promise (2:12)
- Filicide (1:37)
- Aftermath (2:37)
Running Time: 10:18
Andrés de la Torre (2014)