Hong Kong Movie Music That Stuck With Me

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Hong Kong Movie Music That Stuck With Me

For all the positive reputation Hong Kong cinema has accumulated outside of its home territory in the past few years, the soundtracks accompanying it are usually completely neglected. Which, to a certain extent, is understandable: Rarely does a movie from Hong Kong feature an elaborate orchestra score that could match any of Hollywood's most beloved masterpieces. In line with the Hong Kong mentality of making movies - do it fast, and do it cheap - music consisted of mostly cheesy (in the 80s) and mostly forgettable (in the 90s) synthesizer cues that, over the years, have evolved in terms of sound, but only marginally advanced in terms of compositional quality. Sprinkle a number of popular Cantopop songs inbetween, and the average Hong Kong movie soundtrack was complete.

Thankfully, this attitude seems to be changing as of late, as more and more thought is given to the aural side of things. Skilled composers are slowly making a name for themselves. Some soundtracks are even being released on CD - still far too few, but it's a start.
As a way of finally writing a music-related ScreenAnarchy-o-Meter, here they are, then: My favourite soundtracks from Hong Kong movies. For reference, I'm going to provide trailer links for all my choices, so that you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Kwong Wing Chan - Infernal Affairs

Composer Kwong could have easily fallen into the trap of making his score to Infernal Affairs sound like a second-rate Hans Zimmer knock-off. But Infernal Affairs is not your average action thriller, and the same goes for the music. Lacking a bit in tonal coherence, yet positively dynamic and challenging, Kwong composed an impressive number of pieces which are all fun to listen to, even outside the movie context. As a result of Infernal Affairs' utter critical and commercial success, Kwong's music for all three parts of the trilogy is readily available to be bought on official CD releases, something that sadly cannot be said about many of his other works (such as Flash Point, which deserves a honorable mention anyway).

Guy Zerafa / Dave Klotz - Exiled

Exiled is perfect proof of how cinematography and music are able to form a perfect unit. The Canadian composer duo supports the rhythmic energy of the film's action scenes with driving, powerful pieces, while calmer moments exude a kind of Morricone-esque, intimate grandeur. Never does this combination feel overwrought or forced. Zerafa and Klotz avoid corniness and blatant imitation; the very [i]western[/i] feeling of it all not only fits the film's theme but also leaves you thinking how - and if - an Asian composer would have done it differently.
Zerafa and Klotz have apparently become Milkyway regulars by now, having scored Eye In The Sky and Triangle as well. Cynics and purists might complain that they are essentially americanizing a part of the Hong Kong movie identity. But with seemingly so few skilled and dedicated composers from Hong Kong out there, I can't really blame To for thinking outside the box. And hey, the results are excellent.

Peter Kam - Isabella

If there's one name synonymous with quality soundtracks in Hong Kong right now, that name would be Peter Kam. Kam has become as prolific as one can get in this field of work, having scored most films that consider themselves to be worth a dime, or two - from Throwdown to Protégé. It should come as no surprise then that his soundtrack to Isabella earned Kam a Silver Bear at the Berlinale 2006. An award he fully deserved: Heavily inspired by Portuguese fado, Kam's music lends an incredible warmth and melancholy to an already amazing film. The guitar- and piano-tinged arrangements are gentle and soothing, sometimes treading a fine line between kitschy and undeniably beautiful. Most of all, however, they are a perfect reflection of Isabella's unique atmosphere and setting. Within just a few seconds of playing, Kam's work transports key aspects - mood, stories, emotions - right into my mind, and I can instantly find myself returning to the film's world once again.
(The trailer, which incidentally does not feature Kam's music but "O Gente Da Minha Terra" by Portuguese singer Mariza; nonetheless gives you a good idea about the sound and mood of the actual soundtrack.)

Joseph Koo - A Better Tomorrow I & A Better Tomorrow II

A guilty pleasure. I admit it. Joseph Koo's scores for the two legendary Woo films are exact examples of the kind of sound I described in the foreword. Incredibly cheesy, but oh so catchy. How can you not love it? Come on. Koo combines strong synth backings with harmonica lines, making for one of the most memorable movie themes ever recorded. The other compositions are varied and wildly differ in quality, some of them being especially difficult to listen to on their own, but overall, I could not imagine A Better Tomorrow with any other music.
Joseph Koo, having spent most of his career scoring films for the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest in the 60s and 70s, seems to have had an easy time adapting to a completely new style of film music - his apparent flexibility making his work here even more impressive.

The Fifth Spot...

...and I simply couldn't decide what to put here. Franke Chan's oddly effective soundtrack for Chungking Express? Peter Kam again, with Perhaps Love this time? Or how about looking at earlier decades, where we could start considering things like Lan-Ping Chow's unforgettable, brassy theme for King Hu's Come Drink With Me? Oh, the possibilities.
Hey, how about telling me what you think in the comments! Anything else that should be mentioned?

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Al YoungDecember 19, 2007 4:08 AM

The theme in Ashes of Time by Frankie Chan would definitely be on my list for Hong Kong music score that stuck with me. Its such a memorable score. I would also add the piano theme in the Killer by Lowell Lo on that list too.

crazybeeDecember 19, 2007 4:24 AM

I think Exiled is definitely the best HK film score I've ever heard. Too bad Guy Zerafa never sent me that CD he said he would. :(

andrewzDecember 19, 2007 5:49 AM

The Mission's main theme continues to burrow deep into my brain. If I watch any To film, I hear the main theme to that movie non-stop. Maybe not the best score, but certainly one that will identify that film to anybody who has seen it.

Ard VijnDecember 19, 2007 9:23 AM

Awesome Twitch-O-Meter Timo!

The moment I read the intro I was thinking about Exiled, and lo-and-behold it is of course part of your list.

TimoDecember 19, 2007 3:39 PM

andrewz: You're completely right. I can hear the melody in my head right now, note for note. It's genius, if you think about it. Simple, yet unique. But what may work for a video game does not necessarily work for a film, so it's really not a good score, objectively speaking...

I do like the music during the mall shootout though.

vikungfuDecember 19, 2007 5:34 PM

I haven't watched it in years but I remember loving the music in Running Out of Time

krln99December 19, 2007 6:56 PM

WKW movies much? In the Mood for Love and 2046, regardless of what you think of them as films, have superb music.