Best Scores of 2016 – Asia, Part I
The first installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from the Asian continent – in this first case, Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Israel. The film music coming from the Eastern hemisphere is among the best being written anywhere in the world right now, and my first look at the area features five scores by some of my favorite contemporary composers, including Naoki Sato, Christopher Wong, and one especially impressive newcomer. There will be more to come from Asia later!
ABULELE – Frank Ilfman
Abulele is a fantasy-drama from Israel, written and directed by Jonathan Geva. It follows the adventures of a young boy named Adam, who has been struggling with his home life ever since his older brother was killed in a car crash, and who is tormented by merciless bullies at school. However, Adam’s life changes forever when he befriends and shelters a mythical bear-like creature called an abulele, which local legends tell are extremely dangerous, but which turn out to be friendly and playful; initially, the creature helps him outsmart his tormentors and overcome his grief, but before long government forces have discovered Abulele’s existence, and want to capture him for their own ends.
The score for Abulele is by Israeli composer Frank Ilfman, and can easily rival the best children’s fantasy scores that Hollywood has produced. Ilfman’s previous work on scores like Big Bad Wolves in 2013 caught several people’s attention, including mine, but for me Abulele is the best score of his career to date. It uses the power of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, augmented by light, metallic instruments, harps, and bells, to give the score a magical, fairytale sound. The score is anchored by a central theme for the main character, Adam, which Ilfman intentionally wrote to pay homage to the wonderful 1980s fantasy adventure scores he loves, and which the film so lovingly emulates. It runs throughout the score, and can play as a meditation on wistful piano-led loneliness in cues such as “Adam’s Theme,” or have a wonderful sense of adventure and friendship, as it does in cues such as “The Creature” and the enchanting “We Are Friends.”
Following on from his initial appearances, which are accompanied by moments of tension and apprehension in cues like the strikingly energetic “First Encounter,” when he is still misunderstood as the terrifying minster of legend, the abulele himself has a playful pizzicato-fueled waltz motif that shows his mischievous side and appears in several cues throughout the length of the score, including “No Way Out No Way In” and “Meeting Abulele”. This is countered by much darker, more menacing music for The Organization, the relentless Israeli military task force sent to capture the creature, and which appears in “The Legend is True,” “The Assault,” and the epic 12-minute “We Will Hunt It Down” with swirling electronics, heavy brass, and pounding percussion.
The finale, comprising “Returning Home” and the “End Titles,” overflows with emotion, as Ilfman allows both Adam’s theme and Abulele’s theme to combine, creating a wonderful mix of poignant sadness combined with a sense of resolution and strength which conveys that, after his adventures, the kid’s going to be OK. The string writing rises to several lovely crescendos that warm the heart, while the repeated statements of the main theme in the conclusive cue provide a pleasing sense of closure.
Abulele is a hugely impressive orchestral fantasy score that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of 1980s genre scores that make use of big themes coupled striking orchestral action, impressively large-scale orchestrations, and a sense of magical wonderment that permeates the entire score. Intrada Records released it as part of their Special Collection series, but unfortunately at the time of writing it is sold out; if you can snatch up a copy of this somehow on the secondary market, I recommend you do so forthwith!
Track Listing: 1. Prologue (1:34), 2. First Encounter (5:06), 3. The Creature (1:29), 4. A Story About A Monster (2:48) , 5. No Way Out, No Way In (1:46), 6. The Legend Is True (6:49), 7. We Are Friends (7:38), 8. It Will Come And Catch You (8:06), 9. Meeting Abulele (1:59), 10. Adam’s Theme (4:52), 11. The Assault (2:21), 12. We Will Hunt It Down (12:10), 13. Returning Home (5:01), 14. End Titles (5:18). Intrada ISC-339, 66 minutes 57 seconds.
ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM: GRADUATION [ANSATSU KYOSHITSU: SOTSUGYO-HEN] – Naoki Sato
The Assassination Classroom series of movies are based on a comic science fiction manga written and illustrated by Yusei Matsui. After 70% of the Moon is destroyed by an extremely powerful octopus-like monster, the Japanese government promises a reward of ¥10 billion to whoever succeeds in killing it; however, in a bizarre twist, the monster somehow gets a job as a homeroom teacher at a junior high school, where he teaches students not only lessons about life, but also how to be successful assassins, so that one of them can eventually kill him and claim the prize. It’s a bizarre premise, but it’s been enormously successful, spawning an animated TV series, video games, three animated feature films, and two live action films, of which Assassination Classroom: Graduation is the second. It is directed by Eiichiro Hasumi, and has a superb score by the continually impressive Naoki Sato, the first of the nine scores he wrote in 2016.
Despite the completely bonkers premise, Sato’s music for the film is utterly delightful. Some may consider the score enormously schizophrenic as it skips from style to style with gay abandon, but the somewhat scattershot nature of the score actually complements the nature of the film perfectly, and allows Sato to showcase numerous musical styles within one project. Some of the music is contemporary and progressive, ranging from choral chanting and bold electronica in “Grim Reaper,” to modern rock and electric guitars in the “Main Title,” Morricone-style guitars and spaghetti western inflections in “Red Eye” and the marvelously bold and exciting “To the Super Bio Barrier,” and aggressive dubstep in “Enemy”.
However, for most people, the highlights will be the magnificent fully orchestral pieces, which once again illustrate why Sato is one of film music’s great underappreciated theme writers. “Assassination Classroom: Graduation,” the second half of “Our Conclusion,” and parts of “Last Lesson” contain some wonderful, upbeat, rhythmic orchestral big band music with a memorable main theme that has a similar sense of pizzazz as Hans Zimmer’s A League of Their Own. “Kaede’s Secret,” “Assassin and Target,” and the finale of “Vengeance” feature stunningly beautiful, emotional string writing, often with dramatic choral accompaniment, and which often rises to glorious crescendos. The first portion of “Last Lesson” is an enormous, propulsive action sequence with a rambunctious percussion beat and swirling, feverish violins. Best of all, however, are “Birthday Gift,” the first half of “Our Conclusion,” and the superb “Goodbye/Killing Me,” which are built around longing, sentimental piano melodies that become increasingly lush and tender as they develop and pick up more of the orchestra, with the latter of these cues climaxing with an enormous, emotional statement of the big band theme re-arranged for full orchestra and chorus.
Assassination Classroon: Graduation is available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia and CD Japan, and comes with a massive recommendation from me. Note: the track titles are literal translations of Japanese kanji, and may not be entirely accurate.
Track Listing: 1. Grim Reaper (1:46), 2. Main Title (3:06), 3. Assassination Classroom: Graduation (1:12), 4. Red Eye (1:04), 5. Kaede’s Secret (2:45), 6. Enemy (2:31), 7. A Perfect Killer (3:15), 8. Birthday Gift (7:03), 9. Assassin and Target (4:47), 10. Class 3-E Confrontation (4:58), 11. Our Conclusion (3:16), 12. Superbiological Laser Equipment (0:42), 13. To the Super Bio Barrier (2:38), 14. Last Lesson (5:30), 15. Vengeance (4:16), 16. Goodbye/Killing Me (5:52), 17. Teaching from the Heart (1:20). Columbia Music Entertainment COCP-39513, 56 minutes 10 seconds.
THE CAIRO DECLARATION [KAILUO XUANYAN] – Ye Xiaogang and Chad Cannon
The Cairo Declaration is a Chinese film directed by Wen Deguang and Hu Minggang, which dramatizes the events surrounding the 1943 Cairo Conference between US president Franklin Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, as they gathered in Egypt to assess the progress of the war against Japan and plot Asia’s post-war future. The film, which stars Hu Jun, Xue Han, Carina Lau, and Joan Chen, was released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Second Sino-Japanese War, but was criticized for portraying Communist leader Mao Zedong as one of the primary architects of the declaration, when he was not even present at the meetings!
The Cairo Declaration’s score is by young American composer Chad Cannon, and his Chinese counterpart Ye Xiaogang, who is one of China’s most active and most famous composers of contemporary classical music, and who most famously wrote much of the music for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Cannon is a 31-year-old composer from Utah, a graduate of The Juilliard School, and a former protégé of master orchestrator Conrad Pope, who as the founder of the Asia/America New Music Institute is a specialist in blending the musical traditions of East and West. The Cairo Declaration is only his second theatrical score, and if the music heard here is anything to go by, he has a long and fruitful career in film music ahead of him, because it’s quite wonderful.
The division of labor between what Cannon wrote and what Xiaogang wrote is unclear, but either way both composers have succeeded admirably. For such an important part in China’s political history, they give the score a solemnity and gravitas that is appropriate: the stately string writing and grand flourishes of “Red Star Over China” allow for a bold opening, while subsequent cues like “Americans Enter the War,” the piano-led “Briefing Roosevelt,” and “The Cairo Declaration” underline the world-changing events of the film depicts with broad strokes of orchestral power, and compositional devices that occasional remind me of Alexandre Desplat’s oriental scores for films like Lust Caution and The Painted Veil.
The action music in cues such “Air Raid,” “Assault on Chong Qing,” and “Spy Arrested,” is frantic and full of movement, with special emphasis on interlocking layers of strings and turbulent percussive rhythms, while “Bombers on the Yanghtze” features an unexpectedly soothing female choir singing in Chinese, underpinned by militaristic snares and trumpets. These are counterbalanced by some exquisite and tender violin writing in “Blossoming Romance,” and even some warmly playful string and woodwind exercises in “Mao and the Journalist” that have more than a hint of Edvard Grieg to them.
Meanwhile, “Pearl Harbor” is an appropriately dark and ominous action sequence that combines western orchestrations with Japanese ethnic instruments including taiko drums and a shakuhachi, while the subsequent “Epitaph” is a searing solo violin lament that appropriately remembers the victims of that terrible day in 1941. The score concludes on a real high note with the euphoric “Japanese Surrender,” and the flamboyantly stirring “Mao at the Shore of the Yellow River,” during which Cannon and Xiaogang allow the orchestra to reach some real emotional pinnacles. The final track, “Pray,” is a richly orchestrated Chinese-language song performed by a female vocalist, and is quite gorgeous.
Perhaps The Cairo Declaration’s only drawback is the lack of a truly memorable overarching theme to give the whole thing a distinct identity, but this is a small matter, and the combination of bold orchestral strokes and interesting instrumental ideas with strong lyricism and emotion is enough for me to recommend it. The score is available for purchase through Moviescore Media, and is a wonderful introduction to the music of the astonishingly talented Chad Cannon. With this score, as well as his work scoring the documentary feature Paper Lanterns, Cannon has introduced himself as one of the most exciting young composers to emerge this year, and I will watching his career with interest and enthusiasm going forward.
Track Listing: 1. Red Star Over China (2:01), 2. Air Raid (3:38), 3. Bombers on the Yanghtze (2:02), 4. Blossoming Romance (2:48), 5. Assault on Chong Qing (4:56), 6. Enemies of the Nazi Regime (3:14), 7. Mao and the Journalist (1:50), 8. Spy Arrested (2:14), 9. Deliberations (2:27), 10. Pearl Harbor (5:21), 11. Epitaph (1:45), 12. America Enters the War (4:18), 13. Briefing Roosevelt (2:46), 14. Traitor (2:26), 15. Progress (1:46), 16. The Cairo Declaration (3:03), 17. War’s End (2:48), 18. The Broadcast (2:07), 19. Japanese Surrender (1:23), 20. Mao at the Shore of the Yellow River (1:01), 21. Pray (3:48). Moviescore Media MMS-16006, 57 minutes 50 seconds.
THE HANDMAIDEN [AH-GA-SSI] – Jo-Yeung Wook
A psychological thriller with an erotic twist, The Handmaiden is a Korean film from director Chan-Wook Park, adapted from the English language novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Set in Korea in the 1920s, it tells the story of a con-man named Fujiwara, who hires a street urchin and pickpocket named Sookee to become the handmaiden of the wealthy Lady Hideko; Fujiwara plans to seduce, marry, and then murder Lady Hideko in order to inherit her fortune. However, Sookee falls under the spell of Hideko’s sexually abusive uncle Kouzuki, and before long a ‘love square’ of sex and betrayal develops, with each member of quartet plotting against the other. The film has received a great deal of critical acclaim, and competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
The score for The Handmaiden is by Korean composer Jo-Yeung Wook, who previously scored director Park’s films Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and Thirst, and who impressed film music aficionados in 2014 with his brilliant fusion western score for Kundo: Age of the Rampant. The Handmaiden is a much more approachable and traditional score than Kundo was, and as such will likely appeal to a broader range of people; it is fully orchestral, boldly classical, thematically strong, and emotionally varied, with an emphasis on strings and piano that gives it a timeless appeal. Interestingly, and with the notable exception of the some of the percussion items used, there is not much ‘traditional Asian music’ in The Handmaiden, which instead portrays its drama through a purely Western idiom with its orchestration and inflections.
Several cues on the quite long album stand out for their beauty, instrumental design, or both. The gorgeous and sweeping violin and piano performances in the opening “The Tree from Mount Fuji” remind me of Alexandre Desplat at his best, and return later in the outstanding “Wedding,” the longest and for me best track on the album. Darker, more intimidating string tones allow cues such as “The Duchess Juliette” to portray the subterfuge and betrayal at the heart of the story. More sinister, seductive writing for woodwinds and harp in “My Name is Nam Sookee” clearly characterize the duplicitous handmaiden as someone with a hidden agenda. ”You Are My Baby Miss” has a clear Michael Nyman influence through its use of a repetitive saxophone motif, while cues such as “Each Night in Bed I Think of Her Assets” are playful, almost comedic, with their precise, plodding pacing and use of oboes to carry the melody.
Elsewhere, “She’s Beautiful, Quite the Charmer” and the sublime “What’s With Her?” use harps to cast a spell of renaissance-style romance that washes over you like a warm touch. “Feels Just Fine” sees an entrancing, exotic bass flute melody combining with pizzicato techniques and, eventually, a superb cello and violin duet, which really captures the imagination. “You Must Be a Natural” is deeply romantic and moving, rivaling the best love themes penned in 2016. “My Tamako, My Sookee” is a powerhouse, driving and passionate and breathless, with rolling pianos and staccato, thrusting string figures. However, things do start to fall apart a little during the score’s second half, as murder and mayhem start to rear their ugly heads, accompanied by the shrill string writing of cues like “I Was Going a Bit Crazy Back Then,” or the undulating pianos and penetrating flutes in “She’s Totally Illiterate”. As you can tell, the array of styles and instrumental combinations Jo uses to capture all the various complicated emotions on display is broad and deep and very impressive.
In addition to the score there are several tracks of spoken dialogue performed by actresses Kim Tae-Ri and Kim Min-Hee, and which often include sound erotic, orgasmic sound effects for your listening pleasure. There’s also an outstanding original song based on one of Jo’s themes, “Imi Oneun Sori (The Footsteps of My Dear Love),” performed in Korean with breathy-voiced seductiveness by Gain & Minseo.
The score is available as an import from all the usual Japanese retailers like Yesasia and Play Asia, as well as most of the usual online streaming platforms, and comes with an unhesitating recommendation from me. Although The Handmaiden may not contain any significant action writing, and although some may find some of the textures to be too subdued overall, I personally found the score to be excellent. The creativity Jo shows in terms of what he allows his orchestra to achieve, while limiting himself solely to the romantic classical Western idiom, is quite remarkable, and earmarks it as one of the year’s absolute best.
Track Listing: 1. The Tree from Mount Fuji (2:28), 2. Old Scars and Fresh Pink Wounds (performed by Tim Ribchester) (1:16), 3. The Duchess Juliette (1:43), 4. My Name is Nam Sookee (1:12), 5. A Western-Style Wing Designed by an English Architect (1:27), 6. So This Was The Scent [Dialogue] (performed by Kim Tae-Ri) (0:41), 7. You Are My Baby Miss (1:12), 8. Each Night in Bed I Think of Her Assets (1:23), 9. She’s Beautiful, Quite the Charmer (1:57), 10. Spellbindingly Beautiful (1:20), 11. Rope and Mustache (1:01), 12. It Was Wrong to Come Here (1:30), 13. Bounds of Knowledge (0:37), 14. Losing Her Heart to a Fake (1:19), 15. Ladies are the Dolls of Maids [Dialogue] (performed by Kim Tae-Ri) (0:35), 16. The Sweet Things Within (1:04), 17. Feels Just Fine (3:08), 18. Wedding (4:59), 19. Shall We Play Maid? (1:02), 20. A Week Here… Then Finally! (1:03), 21. Wish I Had Never Been Born (1:07), 22. Let Me Tell You About Our Miss Hideko (1:30), 23. I Was Going a Bit Crazy Back Then (1:27), 24. What’s With Her? (1:54), 25. Don’t You Ever Think of Running (2:53), 26. She’s Totally Illiterate (1:13), 27. You Must Be a Natural (3:22), 28. The Song at the End of the Century [Dialogue] (performed by Kim Tae-Ri) (0:47), 29. Thousand Woes Under the Blue Sky (0:57), 30. The Saviour Who Came to Tear My Life Apart [Dialogue] (performed by Kim Min-Hee) (0:53), 31. My Tamako, My Sookee (3:33), 32. Fire! (1:15), 33. Three White Cigarettes (1:24), 34. The Greatest Pleasure (2:28), 35. Five Books That I Used to Cherish (2:16), 36. Four Small Silver Balls [Dialogue] (performed by Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-Ri) (2:19), 37. Sea of Bells (2:23), 38. Imi Oneun Sori (The Footsteps of My Dear Love) (performed by Gain & Minseo) (4:10), CJE&M Music, 67 minutes 02 seconds.
YELLOW FLOWERS ON THE GREEN GRASS [TÔI THAY HOA VÀNG TRÊN CO XANH] – Christopher Wong
Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass is a massively successful Vietnamese film from director Victor Vu, is Vietnam’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2016 Oscars, and is the highest grossing drama in Vietnamese cinematic history. The film is a simple family drama set in the late 1980s, which tells the story of 12-year old Thieu and his 7-year old brother Tuong, whose life becomes complicated when a girl starts to break up the bond between them.
The score is by composer Christopher Wong, who over the past half decade has established himself as the premiere composer for domestic Vietnamese films as a result of his multiple collaborations with director Vu; there are additional music contributions by Wong’s regular co-composer Garrett Crosby, and orchestrations by Ian Rees. Like all of Wong’s work, the score is just delightful, but unlike some of his more recent action and comedy scores for Vu, Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass is calmer, more intimate, and beautifully lyrical, with more than a touch of traditional Vietnamese folk music running through it. It is performed by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra, with viola solos by Patrick Rosalez, vocals by Holley Replogle-Wong, and đàn tranh Vietnamese plucked zither performances by Chau Nguyen.
The main theme, as first heard in the opening cue “The Green Grass,” is based on “Thằng Cuội,” a famous and popular Vietnamese children’s song which was written in the 1960s by a composer named Le Thuong, who died in 1996. Wong explains that, “since the story is about kids growing up and nostalgia, the song has a lot of cultural immediacy in context,” and it also helps that the melody is very beautiful, with a wistful quality that is immediately appealing. The theme re-appears in several cues, sometimes obscured or deconstructed, notably towards the end of “Past the Forbidden Tree,” in “Fishing, Admiration and Envy,” in the sentimental “Running Away,” and in the tender “Moon Moves”, while the final cue on the album is a new vocal recording of the song made for the movie by singer Hien Pham.
The rest of the score is just as beautiful. Piano solos cascade in cues such as “Guilty Rain,” the charming “Dear Brother,” and the evocative “Walking Again”. Mysterious woodwinds and harp textures combine in “Past the Forbidden Tree,” giving it a sense of child-like wonderment underpinned with an almost-subliminal sense of danger. Playful pizzicatos and elegant woodwind and string lines dance against each other in “The Fable,” while a bumbling Nino Rota-esque theme for bassoon forms the centerpiece of “Grumpy Teacher”. “Flooded” has a superb, highly emotional viola element that speaks of great tragedy and regret. Holley Replogle-Wong’s vocal performance in the more strident and urgent “The Days Ahead” is lovely, while the emotional finale in “The Matter of Loving You,” which also incorporates a moving statement of Thằng Cuội on the Vietnamese zither, is one of the most tender cues Wong has written.
The score is available for purchase through Moviescore Media, and is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys warm, lyrical drama scores with Asian inflections. Chris Wong is such a talented composer, with so many melodic gifts, and while his success and fame in Vietnamese cinematic circles is more than well-deserved, it’s such a shame that no major director other than Victor Vu appears to know he exists – this needs to change.
Track Listing: 1. The Green Grass (2:13),2. Guilty Rain (1:22), 3. Past the Forbidden Tree (2:30), 4. The Fable (2:30), 5. Grumpy Teacher (2:12), 6. Dear Brother (2:12), 7. Fishing, Admiration and Envy (3:53), 8. Flooded (2:19), 9. Running Away (1:55), 10. Moon Moves (2:21), 11. The Days Ahead (3:16), 12. The Princess and the Prince (1:53), 13. Walking Again (1:15), 14. Remembering Dad (1:44), 15. The Matter of Loving You (2:53), 16. Thằng Cuội (written by Le Thuong, performed by Hien Pham) (5:09). Moviescore Media MMS-16019, 39 minutes 41 seconds.