Music In Cinema: Uncovering Some Of Asia’s Best Film Soundtracks14 min readReading Time: 10 minutes
Imagine Pirates Of The Caribbean without Hans Zimmers’ heart-pounding, electrifying assembly of crashing drums and dramatic strings.
Imagine Jurassic Park without the magic of John Williams’ fantastical overture.
Imagine Avengers without its spirited score thrumming beneath the frenzy of every battle.
Imagine Schindler’s List without its haunting, harrowing theme.
Music plays an integral backdrop behind most films, and often, a film’s score not only sets the mood and emotion, but grows to be so iconic that it becomes synonymous with the film itself. Such music weaves itself so perfectly into the film’s narrative that it is impossible to unravel one from the other — and this is a testament to a music score’s impeccable ability to coalesce with the world of the film and its story.
Yet all of the examples that I’ve listed above are Hollywood films, so how about Asian films? What are the Asian counterparts to iconic Hollywood film scores?
The original soundtracks (OSTs) here are just a small snippet of the wonderful film scores that exist in the expanding collection of Asian movies today, and are my personal selection of sound tracks from some of my favourite films!
From stunning musical scores to individual songs that embody the themes and narratives that inhabit the space of a film, these OSTs span across multiple countries and languages — and of course, they are each amazing in their own right.
Here’s the list:
Princess Mononokeもののけ姫 (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi’s iconic collaboration over the years has culminated in what has now become a staple in Studio Ghibli’s repertoire of fantastical films: visually-stunning animation backed by glorious, enduring music.
Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service have all undergone the same treatment, and while their musical scores, having been penned under Hisaishi’s thoughtful hand, are still exquisite and delightful, there’s just something about Princess Mononoke’s soundtrack that makes it particularly visceral and gripping.
Princess Mononoke revolves around the grand battle between humans, who are threatening the natural resources of the world, and nature, whose essence manifests in the form of protective gods.
Simultaneously borrowing from the likes of Tolkien’s enchanting Lord Of The Rings soundtrack to Japanese folk music and classical orchestral pieces, Princess Mononoke’s score is at once stirring and dangerous as it is beseeching and haunting. The melancholy of the strings and wistfulness in the brass instruments, coupled with the lively, light-heartedness of the woodwinds floating in the background against pounding drums, weaves together a wonderfully gorgeous and complex landscape of the world as it is in Princess Mononoke.
Through its various contrasting lines of music, the soundtrack deftly ties together the agitation of war between humans and the natural world without losing the heart and tranquility that resides within the spaces of the film’s environment.
Much like life itself, there is beauty to be found in the conflicting emotions and elements that exist in Princess Mononoke’s score — its music goes straight past the heart and right into your very soul, and honestly? This piece is something that lives on a dimension of its own. I can try to describe the emotions that it evokes as much as I want, but nothing comes close aside from the very simple, very apt description: it is completely breathtaking, and absolutely indescribable.
If you haven’t already, listen to this soul-stirring masterpiece here:
P.S. Prepare some tissues. You don’t know what’s going to hit you.
In The Mood For Love 花样年华 (2000)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Music: Michael Galasso, Shigeru Umebayashi
Wong Kar-wai’s films are known for a great many things: stylised cinematography, distinct and gorgeous color palettes, the subtle themes that reside within his films’ narratives — and his absolutely stellar choice in music.
There have been many analyses done of Wong Kar-wai’s musical choices in In The Mood For Love, and I likely won’t be able to come up with anything that would rival the input of the music connoisseurs. Still, it’s impossible to not include this film on the list, and here, I’ll give my layman’s impression on music in In The Mood For Love, primarily on Shigeru Umebayashi’s score in Yujemi’s Theme.
In The Mood For Love tells the story about a man and a woman who find solace in one another following the absence of their relative spouses. In the film, music doesn’t simply go hand-in-hand with the film’s plot, but rather takes on life on its own. Through the background music that forms the backdrop of its characters’ lives, it elevates the film’s story by adding nuances to the otherwise unseen and unheard thoughts that the characters bury within themselves.
The violin refrain in Yujemi’s Theme repeats itself over multiple scenes in the film, and each time it conveys something different — under the pulsing, incessant rain, the wail of violins seem melancholy and strikingly lonely as the characters wander up and down a set of stairs, sometimes crossing paths but other times barely missing one another.
However, as they begin their illicit meetings in dark alleyways or hidden behind the walls of their respective rooms, the violins seem to grasp at something more wistful and sentimental, with the staccato of strings in the background bringing hints of tension to their rendezvous, where they hold their breaths in order not to be caught.
This music motif almost seems to detach them from the rest of the world, and gives their interactions a cinematic quality. The snippets of moments that connect them together hover in a separate dimension from their real lives, where the music allows them to float in a bubble of their own making, away from their responsibilities and duties and away from the watchful, judgemental stares of the wider public — while also seeming to give hints about the innermost thoughts that they refuse to give voice to. This piece of music is the bedrock to their relationship and their interactions, and it brings across far more than what you simply see play out on screen.
Moody and romantic, In The Mood For Love’s music brings across another layer of meaning to its narrative, and draws out the deeply-buried thoughts and secrets that its characters attempt to keep hidden.
Here is Umebayashi’s iconic score:
The Host 괴물 (2006)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Music: Lee Byung-woo
Much like the previous auteurs on the list, Bong Joon-ho is known for many things. His stories can be described as wacky, unconventional, and genre-defying; his style is characterised by the whirlwind of emotions that he puts his viewers through in the way he flips and twists his narrative progression like he might a breakfast pancake; and there are always deeper complexities that reside within his seemingly straightforward premises.
However, in his monster film The Host, there is something else that South Korea’s famed director brings to the table: a distinctive, addictive soundtrack that marks the film as his own.
The Host follows a family as they attempt to retrieve a small girl who has been captured by a monster lurking in the waters of the Han River. Much like the film’s motley crew of eccentric characters, the orchestral piece of In Praise Of The Han River takes a dive into the absurd. The trumpet takes center stage with its whimsical melody akin to a circus act; the cello keeps up with short, repetitive notes that fuels the running tension of a suspense film; and the rest of the strings repeat the melody in a way that gives a sense of the fantastical and incredible reminiscent to that of the monster itself.
All in all, its music is atypical of what is expected from monster film scores, which is usually atmospheric and eerie, with a low, pounding bass that sets the heart palpitating in fear — though this aptly describes Bong Joon-ho’s take on the genre. Unlike other monster films, The Host is full of humour and wit, and its array of characters can all be described as outcasts of regular society with their own idiosyncrasies and quirkiness that are unlike those of horror film protagonists.
The music is at once ridiculous as it is terrifying and haunting, and the environment it creates is a replica of a nightmare; the monster hunts them down like a circus act while they scramble to retrieve their little girl, and the traces of comedy in the film is almost as uncomfortable as the music that plays in the background — where we want to laugh, but can’t.
Almost a mirror to Bong Joon-ho’s comedy-horror monster film itself, In Praise Of The Han River is an absurd, orchestral piece that circumvents genre tropes and expectations with its whimsical, almost theatrical melody.
Catch it here:
3 Idiots (2009)
Director: Rajkumar Hirani
Music: Shantanu Moitra
OST doesn’t simply include a film’s music background and score, but also individual songs that aptly captures a film’s spirit and soul. And there is one specific cinematic tradition that comes to mind when you talk about embedding song and dance right within the very fabric of its narrative — Bollywood!
The critically-acclaimed 2009 Bollywood film 3 Idiots is a satirical comedy that astutely comments on the social pressures stemming from the cut-throat, competitive nature of India’s education system, through the interactions of three best friends studying in a university. As with all Bollywood films, a number of songs span across the film’s three-hour runtime, though the song that can easily elicit a top-of-mind recall would be the cheerful, giddy tune of Aal Izz Well (All Is Well).
While its lyrics seem slightly fatalistic in nature (“The chicken is clueless about the egg’s fate; will it hatch or will it become omelette?”), the happy-go-lucky music suggests otherwise, whereby life — unpredictable and rocky as it may be — offers simple joys to be found within its every crack and crevice.
This reflects the entire film as a whole: amidst deaths and other crises, 3 Idiots provides hope in the form of characters learning to grab life by the wheel to just, well, have a great time. The song, just like the film’s storyline, tackles hard-hitting topics that plague Indian society with a smile on its face and an infectious tune that you’d be hard-pressed to get out of your mind — which is the whole point.
3 Idiots makes life a grand, joyous affair with its upbeat song Aal Izz Well, and imbues sincerity in every laugh. It is not only an iconic song that would immediately bring back memories of the film’s narrative, but a song that wholeheartedly embraces and epitomises what the film stands for.
Warning, though — there are spoilers at the end of the song’s music video, so you might want to click away before the song draws to a close!
You Are The Apple Of My Eye 那些年，我們一起追的女孩 (2011)
Director: Giddens Ko
Music: Mitsutoshi Kimura
Surely no explanation needs to be given for this one? For the unaware, long story short: this is a Taiwanese romantic-comedy that chronicles a guy and a girl’s blossoming relationship through their schooling days.
You Are The Apple Of My Eye is the film that characterised our secondary school days. It was the film that was constantly talked about, and there was probably a huge surge of Singaporean tourists rushing to Taiwan’s Jiufen Old Street in a bid to release sky lanterns inscribed with their prayers and hopes for the future, just as depicted in the film… and of course, the flood of photos on Instagram portraying a group of friends just chilling on one of East Coast Park’s many breakwaters.
Anyway, iconic scenes aside, Hu Xia’s performance of You Are The Apple Of My Eye’s theme song Those Bygone Years boasts not only of a wonderfully pensive melody composed by Mitsutoshi Kimura, but also thoughtful, expository lyrics penned by Giddens Ko himself — which only makes sense. The film is based on Giddens Ko’s novel of the same time, and its storyline chronicles the events of a sentimental point in his past.
All of his thoughts and emotions, all of his memories and regrets, are aptly captured within the lines of lyrics in the song’s melody, much like a diary entry yearning for a long-gone past. It draws an ache deep in our bones for memories that we cannot get back, and years after watching the film, Those Bygone Years still manages to stir emotions in its heartfelt, honest representation of one man’s regrets for bygone years.
An emblem of moments in our life that we aspire to relive, Those Bygone Years carries sincerity in its lamentation of the good old days.
Relive this iconic soundtrack here:
Your Name 君の名は (2016)
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai has been making waves once again on local shores with his new film Weathering With You 天気の子 (which we reviewed here!), but his 2016 masterpiece Your Name 君の名は was the film that put his name on our to-watch list. Light-hearted, comedic, and with a fantastical romance that spans across time and space, Your Name certainly knows how to play its cards right in order to tug at the heartstrings — especially so in its electrifying soundtrack, composed by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS.
There are many songs that fill the spaces of Your Name’s narrative, though the one song for me that stands out amidst the rest of its titillating soundtrack is Sparkle. Unlike the others, Sparkle’s melody line is simple, uncluttered, and there is little dramatic build-up to the song. Even so, it is at once hopeful as it is full of yearning, and we can feel the ache in the singer’s voice acutely in every line of the lyrics, even if we don’t particularly comprehend Japanese.
This song is also masterfully placed in the film’s most dramatic instance: The gentle, rippling piano melody starkly contrasts against the moment in which everything collides and threatens to collapse in on the main characters in their space-defying romance. The music’s subtlety and almost dream-like quality allows the audience to fully immerse themselves in the film’s climax and experience the fallout in all of its urgency and gravity, without sacrificing the depth of emotions that is drawn from Sparkle’s music refrain.
Its lyrics and reflective melody also shapes the song into something of an afterthought, or a lingering daydream that one just can’t shake off — which makes absolute sense in the context of the film’s fantastical plot.
Touching in its simplicity, Sparkle gives heart to Your Name during its earth-shattering, ground-rattling climax, and the sense of nostalgia in its melody persists even after the film is long over.
Listen to this wonderful song here: