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Best Scores of 2017 – Asia-Pacific, Part I

January 22, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The seventh installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world sees us moving east to Asia. Asian film music – especially that of the far east and countries like Japan, China, and South Korea – is shockingly under-valued and un-discovered by the majority of film music fans in Europe and the United States, despite the fact that many of their films contain the bold, orchestral, theme-filled scores that they crave, but do not find in domestic blockbusters. My point in writing these reviews is to show that this great film music does exist if you’re willing to make a little effort to find it: case in point, these seven outstanding scores – four from Japan, one from China, one from Israel, and one outlier from Australia. We will be returning to this part of the world again soon!

ALI’S WEDDING – Nigel Westlake

Ali’s Wedding is an Australian romantic comedy directed by Jeffrey Walker, written by and starring Osamah Sami, and co-starring Helana Sawires, Don Hany and Robert Rabiah. It’s a culture-clash comedy about a Muslim family in contemporary Australia, specifically a progressive and modern doctor, Ali, who is the son of a more traditionally-minded Muslim cleric. An innocent white lie told by Ali sets off a chain of increasingly outlandish events which eventually lead him to being an unwilling part of an arranged marriage. Torn between his faith, his culture, and his family, and his love for his white non-Muslim girlfriend, Ali is forced to make a series of difficult decisions, the ramifications of which could affect the rest of his life.

The score for Ali’s Wedding is by one of the most outstanding Australian composers of the era, Nigel Westlake. Several of Westlake’s previous scores – notably Babe, A Little Bit of Soul, and Paper Planes – have achieved some international popularity, but it is only recently that the composer has made a return to full time scoring, having spent some time away following a personal familial tragedy. Ali’s Wedding is performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, with featured soloists Joseph Tawadros playing the oud, Slava Grigoryan playing classical guitar, and Lior Attar providing vocals.

The music is surprisingly rich and classical, considering the film’s overall tone of light comedy, and Westlake’s knack for delicate orchestral touches and vibrant instrumental passages shines through right from the opening moment. “The Date Seed Parable” is a light, prancing, charming piece that begins sounding almost Tchaikovsky-esque, but then quickly changes and introduces a number of sun-kissed flavors from the middle east, anchored by Tawadros’s emotive oud. It ends like it started, with nimble orchestral passages that are full of lithe movement and subtle comedy hi-jinks, before concluding with a rousing orchestral flourish; it’s all really excellent.

The rest of the score is similar in tone, and generally tends to speak to the more serious aspects of the story involving Ali’s increasingly fraught relationship with his family, and the pressures he faces to maintain his attachment to his culture and his roots in the face of contemporary life. The oud is present throughout – cues like the dramatic “Minaret in the Moonlight,” “A Lie Begins in the Soul,” “As Fire Burns Through Wood,” the moving “I Want To Be The Son You Deserve,” and the spiritual-sounding “The Streets of Basra” are especially rich with its sound – but the orchestra rises to fore with pleasing frequency too.

The orchestral writing is especially lovely in the first half of “Let the Journey Begin,” in the second half of “As Fire Burns Through Wood,” in the flighty and vibrant “Train Station Wedding”, where it has a real sense of emotional depth and resonance. Only occasionally does Westlake allow the music to remind you that this is indeed a comedy – the whimsical march in the second half of “Let the Journey Begin,” the fanciful “The Tea Ceremony,” the festive “This I Know,” and the faux-classical pastiche of “The Rocket Will Launch” all offer some brief moments of bright and charming lightheartedness.

In terms of the other featured soloists, “In Loving Memory” is the cue that features Grigoryan’s classical guitar most prominently, fluid and invitingly warm, while the final cue, “Compassion/Symphony of Songs/Ma Wadani Ahadun/Until the End of Time,” is actually a new recording of one movement from hugely acclaimed song cycle which Westlake co-composed with Lior Attar in 2013, and which features Attar’s exotic vocal inflections and his singing in Arabic, as well as some lovely, emotional crecendos that end the score on a high.

This is a truly outstanding score from Nigel Westlake, one which skillfully blends western orchestral sensibilities with Middle Eastern flavors and sounds in a way that mirrors the cultural clash at the heart of the story. Westlake is a composer whose music demands to be appreciated by a wider audience, and whose talent is far too great to be as unnoticed as long as it has.

Track Listing: 1. The Date Seed Parable (6:00), 2. Minaret in Moonlight (3:04), 3. Let the Journey Begin (3:18), 4. A Lie Begins in the Soul (1:48), 5. In Loving Memory (4:08), 6. As Fire Burns Through Wood (5:21), 7. The Tea Ceremony (2:56), 8. Train Station Wedding (4:57), 9. You Deserve To Be Loved (2:04), 10. This I Know (3:16), 11. I Want To Be The Son You Deserve (5:33), 12. The Rocket Will Launch (2:44), 13. The Streets of Basra (1:27), 14. Compassion/Symphony of Songs/Ma Wadani Ahadun/Until the End of Time (3:37). Deutsche Grammophon, 50 minutes 19 seconds.

 

DESTINY: THE TALE OF KAMAKURA – Naoki Sato

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura [Destiny Kamakura Monogatari] is a live action Japanese fantasy-drama film directed by Takashi Yamazaki, adapted from a popular manga series by Ryohei Saigan. The film stars Nasato Sakai and Mitsuki Takahata as Masakazu, a mystery novelist, and his wife Akiko, respectively, who move from Tokyo to the remote Kamakura region. What’s interesting in the story is that Akiko is sensitive to the spirit world and before long the two of them are solving crimes, puzzles and more, on behalf of a myriad of supernatural creatures who come to them for help.

The score for Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is by the great Naoki Sato, and is one of his three outstanding scores of 2017. Like most of Sato’s scores it’s fully orchestral, thematic, and filled with beautiful textures and interesting ideas. Something that struck me about this score is that it feels like what Sato would have written for a Harry Potter movie; that sense of light magic, wonderment, and charming innocence is palpable all through the score, from the plucked string and pretty chime ideas that carry through the entire work, to the chord progressions, to the way the music tends to be performed at the higher end of the instrumental ranges.

The main theme for The Tale of Kamakura is an overtly classical piece, a rich waltz adorned with various festive and florid orchestral embellishment that make it sound fun and witty, ranging from castanets to whooping French horns and flute trills like butterfly wings. It is reprised in numerous forms as the score progresses, most notably in a pizzicato version in “Masakazu’s Hobby,” in the slow and wondrous “Phantom Station,” the quirky and mischievous woodwind version in “Ghost Application,” the vibrant statement in “The Country of Hades,” and the lovely reprise in the “End Title”.

I especially love the mysterious celesta and string textures in “Spiritual Investigation,” the moving and intimate string writing in “Noriaki Kotari,” the unexpectedly lush classical waltz in “Demons,” and the deeply romantic love themes in “Tea Bowl” and the gorgeous “Goodbye” with their sweet, floating harp textures and rich, soothing strings.

There are a few moments of suspense and tension too – “The Secret of the Store,” parts of “Amagi,” parts of “The Country of Hades” – and a few moments of stirring action, notably the fanciful and exciting textures in “Case Resolution,” the heavy percussion -heavy and dance-like energy of “Poverty God,” and the bouncy “Inari.” By far the best action cues are the conclusive pair, “Resentment of the Elderly” and “The Power of Imagination,” which explode into life with the bold and exciting brass fanfare ideas, energetic string runs, a more prominent percussion undercurrent, and a whole host of interesting orchestral flourishes and embellishments, some of which have a discernible James Horner vibe.

Naoki Sato is truly one of the world’s great film composers, and it frustrates me no end that the majority of people still don’t know his work as well as they should. On the one hand I wish America would discover him, but then he might end up being treated like Roque Baños, who had everything that was great about his Spanish scores diluted by Hollywood’s theme-shy producers. So, I’m actually glad he is scoring half a dozen projects per year in Japan, where they still respect melody and emotion and allow him to write things like this – even if it takes a little more work to track it all down. The score is available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. The Tale of Kamakura Main Title (2:12), 2. The Secret of the Store (1:56), 3. Masakazu’s Hobby (2:22), 4. Red Hand (1:28), 5. Spiritual Investigation (1:33), 6. Case Resolution (0:31), 7. Phantom Station (1:57), 8. Noriaki Kotari (3:13), 9. Poverty God (1:42), 10. Ghost Application (1:55), 11. Makai Reincarnation (0:32), 12. Demons (1:01), 13. Tea Bowl (2:30), 14. Anger (1:01), 15. Spirit Body (1:37), 16. Goodbye (4:33), 17. Inari (1:24), 18. Akiko (2:25), 19. Amagi (1:21), 20. The Country of Hades (1:22), 21. House (2:20), 22. Resentment of the Elderly (2:49), 23. Power of Imagination (2:23), 24. The Tale of Kamekura End Title (1:20). Vap Records VPCD-81995, 45 minutes 26 seconds.

 

HONNOUJI HOTEL – Naoki Sato

Honnouji Hotel is a Japanese comedy-fantasy film directed by Masayuki Suzuki, written by Tomoko Aizawa and starring Haruka Ayase and Shinichi Tsutsumi. Aizawa plays a woman visiting Kyoto who, after a mix-up with her hotel booking, finds herself staying at a quaint, historic hotel built near the site of the infamous Honnuji Incident, in which a 16th-century Japanese clan leader named Oda Nobunaga was forced to commit ritual suicide by his samurai general. That night the woman finds herself transported back in time 500 years to feudal Japan, where she meets and befriends Nobunaga; as her relationship with him grows, she simultaneously seeks to find a way back to her own time.

The score for Honnouji Hotel is by the wonderful Naoki Sato, and is my personal favorite of the five film and TV projects he wrote in 2017. In recent years Sato has firmly established himself as probably the second most high profile Japanese film composer in the world after Joe Hisaishi, and with scores like this it’s not difficult to see why. As is the case with most of the Asian scores I’m covering this year, the score is a fully orchestral extravaganza, overflowing with beautiful themes, interesting and varied instrumental ideas with several different highlighted solos, and some exciting and bombastic action music that perfectly captures the sounds and emotions of feudal Japan.

The stars of the show are the cues that bookend the score, the “Main Title,” and the “End Roll.” It is in these to cues that Sato presents the most expansive statements of his main theme, a bold and sweeping orchestral melody for especially rich and vibrant strings, augmented by the rest of the large orchestra, plus an array of traditional Japanese instruments ranging from the ubiquitous erhu to the koto zither, the shamisen lute, and the shinobue flute, the latter of which is performed by the renowned soloist Kazuya Sato. These cues are just spectacular, and you can feel the history and heritage of the story as it relates to Nobunaga coming through into the present. This 12 minutes of music is amongst the best film music written anywhere in the world this year.

Several other cues are of special note. The bombastic “Kousaku” augments the rousing orchestral lines with more of Kazuya’s shonobue solos and even some shouted vocal textures; this continues on through several of the later next cues, including the more abstract “Tessen”. Both “Nara Shiba Kata Tsuki” and “Uchi Kubi Kakugo” feature intense, complicated taiko drum patterns, while at the other end of the scale “Yoshi Oka” is an unadorned, delicate piano solo, “Honnouji” is a magical piece full of wonderment and an especially evocative vocal performance towards the end, and “Yuuigi” is nimble and dainty, with koto and shamisen textures leading the orchestra on a merry dance of playful, agile dexterity. Two of the final cues – “Wakare” and “Yari Tai Koto” – see Sato at his most romantic, with the former containing an especially lovely erhu solo. In fact, only in “Akechi Mitsuhide” and “Muhon” does Sato embrace any truly dark textures, with scratchy, dissonant string writing, and a rumbling, ominous thematic idea that actually reminds of something from Patrick Doyle’s Frankenstein.

But, truthfully, the whole thing is just superb. Naoki Sato has such an appealing writing style, filled with melody and power, and the way he combines the might of a western orchestra with the sounds of traditional classical music is excellent. Anyone who knows me knows that that sound is something I have loved for years. Honnouji Hotel comes with an unhesitating recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed any of Sato’s scores in the past; if you only buy one of his scores this year, this is the one. It’s available as a CD import from the usual Asian retailers – CD Japan or Yes Asia – or as a digital download from many online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Honnouji Hotel Main Title (5:45), 2. Kousaku (5:46), 3. Souhou (0:53), 4. Tessen (1:22), 5. Nara Shiba Kata Tsuki (1:10), 6. Uchi Kubi Kakugo (1:36), 7. Time Slip (1:21), 8. Yoshi Oka (2:08), 9. Te Uchi (1:51), 10. Oda Nobunaga!? (2:43), 11. Honnouji (2:09), 12. Yuugi (1:23), 13. Akechi Mitsuhide (1:20), 14. Muhon (2:11), 15. Mayoi (0:55), 16. Wakare (3:05), 17. Yari Tai Koto (3:36), 18. Honnouji Hotel End Roll (6:26). Columbia Music Japan COCQ-85336, 45 minutes 50 seconds.

 

ONNA JOSHU NAOTORA – Yoko Kanno

The annual NHK Taiga drama is a year-long television series broadcast on Japan’s main television network, NHK, and has been a staple of Japanese television since the first one was broadcast in 1963. It is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious television events of the Japanese calendar, attracting the cream of Japan’s dramatic talent, actors, writers, directors and composers. The 2017 NHK Taiga drama is Onna Joshu Naotora [Naotora: The Lady Warlord in English], directed by Kazutaka Watanabe, which tells the life story of Naotora (Ko Shibasaki), one of the few female daimyō feudal lords in Japanese history who, after fighting off rebellions from her uncle Naomitsu and his son Naochika, ruled during the Sengoku period in the mid 16th-century.

The score for Onna Joshu Naotora is by the great composer Yoko Kanno whose work, particularly on a series of groundbreaking and popular anime films, has made her one the most successful and well-known composers in Japan. As far as I can tell, this is the first time Kanno has written the score for the Taiga drama, and as such this is a career highlight for her personally. Kanno is well known for her enormous, expansive, lyrical, theme-filled music, and Onna Joshu Naotora does not disappoint in that regard. The whole thing is absolutely wonderful – it overflows with gorgeous melodic writing, is punctuated with complicated and intense action music, and regularly combines the sound of a full western orchestra with a choir, and an array of traditional Japanese instruments.

In a score full of highlights, it’s difficult to pick out tracks that are superior to others, but some do stand out in one way or another. The Rósza-esque fanfares in the opening “Amatora – Toranome” are superb, especially the way they blend into the glorious, sweeping theme that follows it, with it’s dancing, sparkling piano solos. The heroic brass-led theme that emerges in “Kokoh” has more than a hint of Conan the Barbarian to it. “Hajime” is lush and majestic, with vivid string solos and light, metallic accents. “Abare” is full of bold, thrusting, militaristic action, which cleverly offsets all the sections of the orchestra – strings, brass, woodwinds – in a battle of competing rhythmic ideas. The cello writing in the sumptuous “Weak Heart” is like Ennio Morricone at his most moving. “Medeta Medetaya” is Kanno’s version of historical Japanese music from the period, filled with sung vocals, chants and grunts, and struck bamboo percussion. “Ryugukozou” slowly moves from a whimsical lullaby melody hummed by a little girl to a gorgeous rhapsody for strings, piano, harp waves, and bubbling synths over the course of five minutes.

The score’s second half is no less impressive than the first. “Kame’s Whistle” is a haunting, melancholic piece for a solo Japanese hochiku flute. “Tora’s Dream” is a rich, dazzling piece for solo piano. “Bouncing Tiger” written for an effervescent solo violin, supported by an energetic and pretty string backing. “Sword” is bold, and dramatic, with a heaviness in the orchestration that feels like something from Wojciech Kilar’s canon. “Moon Boat” is much more contemporary, an intimate duet for saxophone and guitar that sounds like it would be weird in context, but is nevertheless lovely to listen to. “Hamana Wind” returns to the solo violin sound, and is just sublime – longing, romantic, a touch melancholy, but overwhelmingly beautiful. “Amatora – Toranoi” is filled with pageantry and grandeur, with flashing brass fanfares and glorious orchestral crescendos. The conclusive “Amatora – Toranoo” brings everything together in the manner of an old fashioned historical epic: bright brass triplets, swirling strings, lilting oboe solos. It’s what Korngold would have sounded like had he been born in Japan.

Perhaps the only- and I do mean only – drawback to Onna Joshu Naotora is the fact that no one single theme stands out as being an overarching ‘main theme’ with several performances and variations; instead, every cue feels like a brand new, standalone piece. They’re brilliant, individually, but nothing really links them together. But I’m really searching here – the music is so good, that it’s easy to overlook this one minor criticism.

Without a word of hyperbole, this music is some of the best film music written anywhere in the world in 2017, and that includes your Star Warses, and all your Desplat scores, and every Hollywood mainstream blockbuster that the fanboys go gaga over. Run, don’t walk, to any online store which sells or streams import music from Japan: trust me, you won’t regret it.

Note: this review concentrates solely on the music for Volume 1 of the soundtrack for Onna Joshu Naotora; the five additional volumes build on the ideas heard in this score, and are absolutely worth exploring in their own right.

Track Listing: 1. Amatora – Toranome (2:45), 2. Kokoh (4:22), 3. Hajime (2:32), 4. Abare (2:28), 5. Ii Don Quixote (3:07), 6. Weak Heart (4:05), 7. Onagoni Kosoare (3:39), 8. Medeta Medetaya (1:10), 9. Ryugukozou (5:31), 10. Kame’s Whistle (2:17), 11. Tora’s Dream (5:27), 12. Bouncing Tiger (3:15), 13. Sword (2:51), 14. Moon Boat (2:27), 15. Hamana Wind (3:20), 16. Tachibana (5:28), 17. Amatora – Toranoi (2:53), 18. Amatora – Toranoko (0:51), 19. Amatora – Toranome (2:53), 20. Amatora – Toranoo (7:37). Sony Music Japan International SICX-30038, 69 minutes 09 seconds.

 

PAST LIFE – Cyrille Aufort

Past Life [Ha’hataim, or החטאים, in its native Hebrew] is an Israeli film written and directed by Avi Nesher, based on Baruch Milch’s memoir ‘Can Heaven Be Void’. Set in the 1970s, it follows the story of twin sisters – a shy classical musician and an outgoing tabloid journalist – who make some shocking discoveries about their father, an Auschwitz survivor, specifically relating to how he escaped from Poland to Israel, which threatens to break apart their entire family. It stars Nelly Tagar and Joy Rieger as the sisters, Nana and Sefi, and has an original score by the outstanding French composer Cyrille Aufort.

The score is mainly subdued and intimate, a series of dramatic, romantic, emotional, but understated pieces for piano and strings which build out of the opening cue, “Past Life Theme” and climax in the similar-sounding “End Credits,” which augments the theme with an immediate, natural-sounding solo vocal performance. Some pieces are livelier: “Katowice,” for example, takes the same core orchestrations but gives them a more energetic feel, using the cellos to run with some dancing ostinatos, while “Photoshoot” is vibrant and richly classical.

Other pieces, like “Baruch’s Diary Part 1,” “Warsaw,” the haunting “Baruch’s Diary Part 2,” and the more emotional “Sefi’s Letter,” take a more dramatic mode, scoring the terrible revelations in the life of Nana and Sefi’s father with slow, moody string lines and poignant piano writing that conveys a sense of tragedy and desperation. “Berlin” is one of the few cues which makes use of a small brass presence, while the conclusive “Baruch and Agnieszka” blends the solemn string tones with some disturbing, almost horror-like chord structures to give the final revelation a touch of overt awfulness.

There’s one action sequence, “Archives,” which begins with a reprise of the Past Life theme, but slowly shifts into a series of complicated, swirling, rhythmic string and piano ideas, full of overlapping textures and pulsating movement. There’s also an interesting piece of original source music, “Dance Teacher,” which begins as a fun pastiche of a samba, but becomes much more tragic by the end.

In addition to Aufort’s score, the album also includes some new recordings of traditional Jewish choral music performed by The Thlema Yellin Alumni Choir conducted by Yishai Shtekler, and two original compositions by contemporary classical composers Ella Milch-Sheriff and Avner Dorman. These pieces are actually performed on-screen by Sefi, the musician sister, and are deliberately challenging pieces which mirror the struggles and conflicts that the twins face as the story unfolds.

Chronologically this is the first of Cyrille Aufort’s three major scores in 2017 (it actually opened in Israel back in December 2016 but didn’t hit an IFMCA media market until 2017) – the others being Knock and L’Empereur – and, when combined with the other two, it elevates him as one of the most consistently outstanding composers working in film music in the world right now. Past Life has such a sense of emotional depth, a profound sense of sadness and loss, and when these emotions are filtered through the lush orchestrations that Aufort uses here, the end result is superb. The score is available on CD and as a digital download from producer Mikael Carlsson’s boutique label Moviescore Media.

Track Listing: 1. Past Life Theme (2:51), 2. Hishki Hizki (composed by Abraham Caseres) (3:33), 3. Katowice (1:37), 4. Baruch’s Diary Part 1 (2:58), 5. Photoshoot (2:18), 6. Dance Teacher (1:31), 7. Warsaw (3:19), 8. The Concert (composed by Avner Dorman) (3:07), 9. Baruch’s Diary Part 2 (2:05), 10. Archives (4:35), 11. Zielinski (2:31), 12. Sefi’s Letter (1:48), 13. Berlin (2:43), 14. The Time Will Come (composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff) (3:56), 15. Baruch and Agnieszka (2:03), 16. Past Life End Credits (2:50), 17. Cantique de Jean Racine (composed by Gabriel Fauré) (5:29). Moviescore Media MMS-17008, 49 minutes 24 seconds.

 

TSUIOKU – Akira Senju

Tsuioku [Reminiscence] is a Japanese drama-mystery film directed by Yasuo Furuhata, which looks at the lives of three childhood friends who are reunited in adulthood in the aftermath of a murder – one of them is the police detective assigned to the case, one of them is related to the victim, and the other is the prime suspect. The film stars Junichi Okada, Shun Oguri, and Tasuku Emoto, and has an original score by Japanese composer Akira Senju.

I have to admit I don’t know much about Akira Senju’s music, but having now heard Tsuioku I do know this: the man can write themes with the best of them. Tsuioku is built around variations on at least three recurring themes: “Tsuioka,” “Unmei No Hika” (which translates as something like ‘The Tragedy of Destiny’), and “Shihou No Kako” (which translates as something like ‘Memories of the Past’). Throughout the score these three central melodic ideas return in different guises, and the way Senju is able to play around with tempo, phrasing, and orchestration to give the same themes so many different moods and convey so many different emotions, is quite outstanding.

The main Tsuioka theme is introduced in the opening cue, “Ichihara Ai,” a sublime rendering for strings, harp, and a solo female soprano voice. It’s a theme of exquisite beauty, albeit beauty touched with sadness, longing, regret, and perhaps even a touch of bitterness. The way it conveys the different paths these childhood friends took in life, and how for two of them it resulted in terrible tragedy, is really quite excellent. Later, “Yuki Wari Sou,” “Omoide No Yuki Wari Sou,” and “Haruka Naru Yuki Wari Sou” re-imagine the theme as a duet for guitar and harmonica, which gives it an unexpected western vibe which is very reminiscent of something like Cinderella Liberty by John Williams, or Wild Rovers by Jerry Goldsmith. When the warm, soothing orchestral wash comes in during the second of these, the resulting sound is truly lovely. The return of the solo soprano vocal in the finale ends the score on a high.

Several of the Unmei No Hika cues feature some utterly exquisite solo cello writing, notably “Meguriawase,” “Ketsudan,” and the three “Ushinawa Re Ta Toki” cues. The cello has such a rich, lustrous timbre, and such a palpable emotional content, that’s impossible not to feel the sadness through the beauty. The cello also features prominently in more atmospheric cues like “Ugokidashi Ta Haguruma,” where it is augmented by pretty flute and violin accents and a more pulsating, rhythmic undercurrent.

Finally, the Shihou No Kako theme is a sorrowfully romantic theme which first appears in “Boshi,” where it is passed beautifully between the different parts of the woodwind section, accompanied by warm strings and a classical guitar. The theme returns with a more downbeat, reflective attitude in “Oi Ta Haha,” and “Mugon No Kokuhaku – Kizuna,” both of which are gorgeous in a slightly gloomy way.

Possibly the only drawback to Tsuioka is that it tends to maintain a single emotional mood throughout the score; the lack of any tonal variance is clearly dictated by the film itself, and the necessities of the narrative, but it may render the album a little repetitive and samey for those who prefer a little more conflict in their film music. Despite this, Tsuioka is nevertheless a truly beautiful score which will appeal greatly to anyone whose musical tastes embrace thematic romance underpinned with a hint of heartbreak.

Track Listing: 1. Tsuioku – Ichihara Ai (Main Titles) (2:07), 2. Unmei No Hika – Meguriawase (5:08), 3. Shihou No Kako – Boshi (3:28), 4. Unmei No Hika – Ketsudan (1:13), 5. Tsuioku – Yuki Wari Sou (1:33), 6. Tokuto Minako (0:52), 7. Unmei No Haguruma (1:11), 8. Kasanaru Kako (1:57), 9. Ugokidashi Ta Haguruma (2:35), 10. Unmei No Haguruma – Ushinawa Re Ta Toki, Version 1 (3:38), 11. Tsuioku – Omoide No Yuki Wari Sou (3:25), 12. Shihou No Kako – Oi Ta Haha (3:56), 13. Shihou No Kako – Munasawagi (1:36), 14. Mugon No Kokuhaku – Seotta Toki (2:25), 15. Unmei No Hika – Ushinawa Re Ta Toki, Version 2 (2:35), 16. Kinpaku To Tsuiseki (1:58), 17. Omoigakenai Houkoku (0:58), 18. Mugon No Kokuhaku – Kizuna (2:42), 19. Ushinawa Re Ta Toki, Version 3 (1:36), 20. Torimodoshi Ta Shinjitsu (1:46), 21. Tsuioku – Haruka Naru Yuki Wari Sou (2:36), 22. Tsuioku – Ichihara Ai (End Theme) (4:51). Avex AVCL-25931, 54 minutes 18 seconds.

 

YOUTH – Zhao Lin

Youth [Fang Hua] is a Chinese romantic drama directed by Xiaogang Feng, which follows the lives of a troupe of actors in the 1970s as they travel around Mao-era China putting on cultural plays and shows for the public; along the way, the troupe members fall in and out love, deal with family crises, and experience the political and social upheavals of the era – including getting involved in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War – all against a spectacular backdrop of music, dance, and art. The film has been an enormous success at the Chinese box office in 2017, with special praise being heaped on its breakout stars, actor Huang Xuan and actress Miao Miao.

The score for Youth is by the 45-year old Chinese composer Zhao Lin, the son of the legendary film composer Zhao Jiping. Zhao Lin’s previous scores for the films A Woman a Gun and a Noodle Shop, Together, and The Great Qin Dynasty were well received, and he often writes original classical music on commission from cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Much like his father, Zhao Lin has an astonishing gift for melody and harmony, beautiful orchestral arrangements, and is capable of great dramatic power when he needs to be. Youth contains all these elements and more, in a package that moves from the most glorious romance to action music for the sequences set during the war.

The vast majority of the score is orchestral, with special emphasis on strings and piano. The second cue, “Beautiful Life,” is simply sensational; a series of warm, flowing, fully orchestral themes with some especially tender writing for woodwinds, and which frequently swells into crescendos of stirring passion. Later, “Writing Letter” is smaller and more intimate, but no less attractive. The string and piano writing in both “Father’s Letter” and “When Xiaoping Meets Shuwen” is a little wistful and melancholy, with the latter also including a sublime solos for both cello and trumpet. Virtually entire finale – from “Last Words” and “Psychiatric Hospital” through to “Disappointed in Love” and “Back to Camp” – puts the listener through the wringer, with cue after cue of profoundly emotional material filled with solo instrumental performances and deeply moving thematic ideas. It’s just outstanding.

There are moments where the music takes an unexpected turn – “Redressing” is a Gallic waltz with a prominent accordion, and “Narration” blends the accordion with a soulful guitar, while “Traffic Accident” offsets the main theme against a bed of urgent, pulsating strings – but the score’s main departures are “Battlefront,” the subsequent 10-minute “Rescuing and War,” and “Receive the Wounded,” in which Zhao Lin engages in some surprisingly large-scale and bombastic action music. These pieces are full of complicated string ostinatos, brassy thematic ideas, moments of stark dissonance, and even some fluttering electronic sound effects that have a definite Hans Zimmer vibe. The finale of the middle cue is just magnificent, a moving and emotional string lament that stirs the soul, while “Receive the Wounded” features a solo female soprano vocal of great poise and clarity.

This is truly great film music from a market which is still overlooked by Western audiences; Chinese films often contain the big, sweeping, gloriously orchestral scores that American collectors crave, and which are often missing from domestic blockbusters – and Youth is a perfect example of that sort of writing. It’s also interesting to observe that Chinese film music now has its first composing dynasty, and that Zhao Lin is following in the esteemed footsteps of his father Zhao Jiping by writing music that demands to be heard. The score is available as an import CD from China, or via the usual digital download retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Suzi’s Narration (0:32), 2. Beautiful Life (2:28), 3. Practicing at Midnight (1:08), 4. Redressing (0:44), 5. Writing Letter (1:49), 6. Father’s Letter (2:29), 7. Narration (0:47), 8. Battlefront (1:45), 9. Rescuing and War (10:15), 10. Receive the Wounded (1:39), 11. When Xiaoping Meets Shuwen (2:18), 12. Last Words (2:15), 13. Psychiatric Hospital (1:01), 14. Traffic Accident (1:32), 15. Disappointed in Love (1:27), 16. The Last Supper (1:41), 17. Back to Camp (1:10), 18. Photo (1:04), 19. Transferring (0:29). Beijing Bridge Spirit Records, 36 minutes 42 seconds.

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  1. January 22, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    I’m pleased to see that two of the Japanese scores you selected also appeared in the Screensoundradio Top 15 Best Scores of 2017. This could have been more but I hadn’t the chance to listen to the Sato and Zhao scores yet.
    If people follow up on your desire that those Asian beauties should be heard it’s good to know that Screensoundradio, once launched, will give lots of attention here to.

  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am

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