An Interview with Composer Henry Lai

HENRY 1

In the twenty year since his film music debut in 1994, Henry Lai Wan Man has secured a firm spot on the short A-list of Chinese film composers, next to fixtures like Chan Kwong Wing or Peter Kam. A four-time Hong Kong Film Awards nominee, his talents have been sought by some of the most high-profile directors in China and Hong Kong, including Dante Lam, Daniel Lee, Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Gordon Chan, Felix Chong and Alan Mak. And rightly so : his scores show a great versatility, an ability to adapt to different genres and to integrate illustrious musical influences (Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Hans Zimmer…) while never forsaking his own style.

For a primer of Henry Lai’s talents you can listen to his rousing, heroic theme for 14 Blades, the wistful and folkloric “Paddy Field Song” from The Lost Bladesmanthe heartbreaking lament for Nick Cheung’s character in The Beast Stalker, the driving investigation theme from The Four, the triumphant Russian-flavoured training music in Star Runner, the tense, pulsating action music from The Sniper, the touching, delicate score for Echoes of the Rainbow, the Morricone-inspired music in A Fighter’s Blues, the ominous main titles cue from Fire of Conscience, the gripping percussive music (one of Lai’s specialties) of White Vengeance, or the gloriously epic main theme of Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon.

Coming off one of his most successful years yet in 2015 (he scored the biggest Chinese film ever, Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade, as well as Dante Lam’s big budget sports film To The Fore and Mabel Cheung’s romantic drama A Tale of Three Cities), and despite facing the mountain of work he has to deal with as an in-demand composer, Henry Lai kindly took time to answer our questions :

  Can you tell us about your academic background, and how you originally came to become a film composer ?

I studied Architecture in the University of Hong Kong. At that time I formed a band with some schoolmates just for fun, playing cover versions. Before that I played classical guitar and I suppose that’s when I got my training in reading charts, harmony the usual kind of basic, elementary music studies. Anyway, upon graduation, a bandmate said a friend of his was starting a band called ‘Island’ and this guy had already got a record contract and was looking for one more band member. So I joined the band and started writing original songs, programming drum machines and synthesizers. The band had some small success but finally went south because of personal problems.

After the disband I started another band and also took up some production work, but I never really broke into the “commercial music scene” probably because my songs were not commercial enough. I did not get enough jobs as a song writer and producer so I was looking for opportunities. My then manager introduced me to his friend who just finished shooting the Kung Fu Scholar movie and he asked if I was interested in scoring it, and of course I jumped at it and that film was my introduction to film music. Before that of course I listened to soundtracks but not to the degree that I was mad about it, studying it you know; just aware of it. Anyway scoring my first movie was such an eye opener, I really enjoyed how music integrates with visuals and started to see the potential. Furthermore, that film was a kung fu film with a lot of Chinese traditional music influence but the only knowledge I had at that time was the numerous black and white late night Chinese movies I watched on TV, but I guess the Chinese music thing was in my blood so I got by, faked my way around it so to speak.

  And how did you come to be a successful composer ?

Although I thought I did an ok job on my first movie, I did not get much scoring work coming. At that time I lived rather close to the Radio Television Hong Kong building, after acquainting myself with one of the directors I got a lot of TV scoring work coming in, maybe because my flat was close so the directors could come in to check on the music as if they had their own music department near by. For the next two years I scored a lot of RTHK dramas, it was like a very intensive training course on scoring and I started to absorb and learn about spotting music, underscoring to scenes, writing themes, arrangement, working with computers etc…

Doing some side jobs for an assistant producer introduced me to director Daniel Lee. At the time Daniel also worked as a trailer editor and he asked me to write some trailer music for him. The working relationship turned out pretty good and later on I scored the TV action drama The Eight Kung Fu Masters for him. That was around 1995 and it started a 20 years working relationship ! Daniel Lee has a very strong sense in music and he used to edit music for his work with TVB so he is very knowledgeable in film music. For the next several films we did – Till Death Do Us PartMoonlight ExpressA Fighter’s Blues, he really taught and inspired me a lot on scoring in terms of interpreting a scene, in general, analyzing a film. And because he is such a hard to please director, I had to (and still have to) write and rewrite many times on themes and cues ; it was like an intensive course on Advance Film Scoring but anyway, I think I finally graduated from that course on A Fighter’s Blues, because while scoring that film I could feel that Daniel and I were connected – I could almost hear that clicking sound ! It is euphoria when you can finally understand what the director has been trying to convey in his movies and then are able to express that sensation with music. Everything just comes together like a jigsaw puzzle and fits into a most beautiful picture.

Director Mabel Cheung watched A Fighter’s Blues and liked my work so she asked me to score Beijing Rocks. That was the first time I scored for a real orchestra and it scared the shit out of me. Fortunately my Grade 5 music theory helped me to some degree and again, I managed to fake my way through by studying hard what the masters did. But it was a tricky job too because the movie features a lot of rock songs and I was scratching my head on the style of music that would work for it. Then I remember what I.M. Pei did for the Louvre extension design ; instead of going along with the classical design of the Louvre, he chose a very empirical and pure shape – the triangle, to complement the very ornamental original classical structure. So instead of using rock music to go with rock songs, I used a very classical waltz score to express the sentiment of the story and the characters, while at the same time complementing the energy of the rock elements. The waltz theme also brought out the romantic side of the movie. I guess my architectural training in some way saved me. Mabel gave me a lot of creative freedom and I feel blessed working with her and so many inspiring directors. And I guess my first breakthrough came with scoring for Three Kingdoms. It was my first ‘epic’ movie, a lot of action, orchestration, Chinese ethnic instruments, I think I did a very good job on that and from then on I must have scored about ten such epic theme movies !

  In addition to Daniel Lee (10 films and a TV series) and Mabel Cheung (4 films), you’ve also become a regular collaborator of another major Hong Kong filmmaker, Dante Lam (8 films). How different is it to work with each of these directors ?

Well, obviously each director has his/her preferences and taste in music. One thing common with all three directors though; they all put music in a predominant position, that is. they all want music to play a major role in their movies.

In terms of style, I would say Daniel is more rooted in the 70’s kung fu movie, he has a lot of affection for the brotherhood bonding kind of romance. It is the kind of brothers go to war sacrifice their life, spill their blood and guts together kind of thing if you know what I mean, just like the old Chang Cheh movies, very masculine and male dominated. And he wants this kind of sentiment to flow in his movies. Working with Daniel is tough because he is very demanding, in every field and not just music. I often need to rewrite over ten times to come up with a theme he is pleased with. Except for one time, Daniel asked me to write a theme music for Three Kingdoms because he needed to put together a sales brochure to look for investors for the movie. It is very rare to compose a theme music for a movie at such an early stage but Daniel had already written a novel for the movie – a novel, not a script, it was only later adapted to a script. Anyway to cut a long story short, I read the novel and was so inspired that I wrote the main theme to the movie in just a few days, I remember it was Chinese New Year and traditionally no one works on the New Year’s day. So Daniel came to my place in New Year and I played him the music. I can still remember seeing his jaw dropped and that glow in his eyes, I think it has to be one of the most successful moments in my life.

Mabel loves romantic music, and so melody plays a major part in her movies. She gives me a lot of freedom in composing and she would just say, ‘Henry Lai, Henry Lai, could you write me something nice and beautiful ?’ So I would say working with Mabel is relatively easier, the hardest part is to convince her not to use something – while writing for A Tale of Three Cities, I came up with two melodies, one is beautiful and easy listening, the other one has more depth which I think suits the movie more ; Mabel chose the one I didn’t like so I had to spend the next two week convincing her the one I liked worked better.

With Dante Lam, almost all the characters in his movies are dark and tormented, so the music has to reflect this sentiment. The exception of course is his last movie ‘ To The Fore‘, the characters are sunny, but there is still a darker side of them as well as the sport in the movie. The music is treated as if it is an action movie and it is deliberately composed over the top with larger than life arrangement to glorify the sport. So in that aspect, the music is not much different from those I did for Dante’s past works. But the most difficult part in ‘ To The Fore ’ was time; he over spent time on editing and in the end I only had 45 days to finish everything including orchestra, choir, drums and percussions recording. So I needed to plan everything really well, I needed to jump scenes so to speak and composed everything that needs orchestra and choir recording first so that I could pass them on to the orchestrator for preparation first, and then fill in all the blanks later. Luckily everything turned out superbly and I literally worked to the last minute, delivering all materials to the mixing stage in time.

  Who are your biggest musical influences ? 

My musical influences, that’s kind of difficult to answer. I think my influences come mainly from my rock background. I listened to Santana, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, all the classic rock bands, but then I also listen to classical composers and contemporary film composers like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ennio Morricone, Luis Bacalov, John Barry, Hans Zimmer or John Williams. I think I learnt from all of them. Whenever I listen to a composer’s work, instead of learning from their technique or analyzing their style or instrumentations, I try to understand their thinking, how they approached a movie or their motive and intention. Because copying a chop is a xerox but if you go all the way back to their first step, you can always find a fresh path. I always think of scoring as being like painting, sonic palettes are colors on the audio canvas, expressing warmth, coldness or tension with different contrast in tone or lightness. The proportion and different juxtapositions of these elements give me my style.

  The current A-list of Chinese composers is pretty short. There’s you, Peter Kam, Chan Kwong Wing, Leon Ko and one or two others. Why do you think there are not more successful Chinese film composers ?

  I am sure there are many budding composers who can bring new materials to the film music industry if given the opportunity. The investment and money involved in this business is far too big and producers are looking for name composers not just because of their fame but also because they are a guarantee of quality. Music arguably is the last gates that a movie has to pass through before it is finalized so there is a lot of pressure on the composers ; the pressure is on the style – sometimes the choice of music can really make or break a film, and also on the limited time – usually the producer does not reserve enough time for the composer. A lesser experienced composer may not perform well under such condition and therefore the producers dare not take the risk to hire a new gun. An experienced composer may not be able to compose at his best for every film but he can maintain a reasonable quality product and deliver in time. That is not to say there are no chances for new composers, only that they need more time and more references to prove themselves, maybe starting with lower budget films and collaborating with new directors; but sadly all the films produced in the past few years from Hong Kong and China have focused on big budget productions. But things are changing, I see more mid-level budget films coming out, some are pretty good too.

  Also, more and more western composers are being brought in to score major Chinese films, like Christopher Young for The Monkey King, Javier Navarrete for Zhong Kui, Zbigniew Preisner for Lady of the Dynasty, and so on. Conversely, would you ever welcome the opportunity to work out of China ?

It would be cool to have the opportunity to work out of China. It is interesting to see how the western system works; getting to know and communicate with different directors or producers would be a great experience too. And I would like to bring some of that experience back to Hong Kong and share it with other film composers. I think the present system in Hong Kong could benefit from some improvement.

  What issues are you referring to ?

I am referring to the contractual issues with film studios, particularly involving the Work For Hire condition in contracts which has caused a lot of misunderstanding concerning the composers’ rights. A Work For Hire condition is when the employer asked the employee, in this case the composer, to transfer all his rights to his creative products to the employer. The employer is deemed the original creator and the sole owner to these intellectual products. The composer can no longer hold any rights and hence cannot share any subsequent benefit from the exploitation of his intellectual products. Because of this misunderstanding, the rights of composers are compromised. The western film studios are more experienced in these fields and have clearer aspects on these issues.

  You did actually step out of Hong Kong and China when you scored the Bhutanese film Prophecy. How did such an unusual opportunity come about, and how was the experience ?

I too wonder how this opportunity came about. This is a movie about Buddhism, so maybe I was chosen because I didn’t have any religious background; I don’t think a Christian composer would take up the job ! Honestly, I was referred to the director, a high priest (Rinpoche) in Bhutan by a production company whose boss was a Buddhist, so I went to see this Rinpoche not expecting anything. The meeting went on very well and I had a lot of respect for him; mind you, I have always admired the intelligence of the Dalai Lama, I am very fascinated by his quotes. Anyway, so I gladly took up the job. The experience was pretty far out, as for some mysterious reason I have always had this calm and joyous feeling whenever I see the Tibetan monks or see the photos of Potala Palace. I later found out that my birthday was the same date (not the year) as the Chinese massacre of Tibetans in 1959, so who knows, maybe in my former life was a Tibetan.

  Which of your scores are most proud of, and which were the most difficult to compose ?

To be honest, I like all my works but I’m not satisfied with any of them. Having said that, I quite like the music I did for  A Fighter’s Blues. I really like the theme to this movie. In fact I have asked Daniel the same question and it turns out that theme is also his favorite. I remember there was a time I was so worried that I could not write anything better than the theme I did for that film. But anyway, that’s me; I am always kind of unsure about my ability – not the most confident man. So whenever I start on a project there is a great length of psychological struggle I have to go through. Can I outdo myself ? Can I do a better job than last time ? And that brings the answer to your second question, every project is difficult. All the directors I have worked with like giving me difficult tasks, I guess I have been unlucky. But you know how it is, everything seems difficult when doing it but afterwards on retrospect it is no bigger deal and I wonder how I got through it. So far I would say Dragon Blade was difficult because there were two cultures that I needed to take care of. I had to write for many ethnic instruments so I had to do a lot of research. This is the first movie for which I wrote for choir and I had to spend my Christmas holiday writing Latin lyrics to the choir parts, and I know as much Latin as you know Chinese ! There were lots of songs, and because Jackie was always traveling I needed to fly all the way to Beijing to take his vocals. Scoring Dragon Blade was the most challenging job, but it was also the most fun.

  You’ve already released a dozen of your scores, which is a lot for a Hong-Kong/Chinese composer, but only a small portion of your filmography. How do you choose which of your scores to release ? And what are your upcoming releases ?

Ah, you know how the music business is nowadays, releasing CDs is like suicide. Soundtracks occupy a niche market in Hong Kong and China, so without the studio back-up for promotion, one has to be very careful when releasing them. Luckily I own all my rights and my own label releases the CDs. All the soundtracks I have released so far have been well received and some, like Three Kingdoms or Echoes of the Rainbow are selling pretty good.

Soundtracks can only sell if the music is really good or if the movie is a blockbuster, so naturally I only release scores which I am satisfied with. A Tales of Three Cities will be released on the 20th this month. This soundtrack has taken me a lot of time and extra effort because I felt that there were a few cues that could be improved so I re-recorded the orchestra part and some solo performances for a couple of them. I have put in a lot of resources on the post-production of the CD. Following A Tales of Three Cities will be soundtrack releases for Dragon Blade, and then To The Fore ; again a lot of people like the song in Dragon Blade, but it was a snippet I composed for the scene, so I might extend it to a full song. Then there is a plan to release a compilation of some of my past works, kind of like a best-of.

  Can you tell us what upcoming films you’re working on ?

The next movie I am working on is Daniel Lee’s new action movie [Editor’s Note : Time Raiders, starring Lu Han and Jing Boran]. The one following is by Dante Lam, also an action movie about the drug lords at the Cambodia/China border [Editor’s Note : Operation Mekong, starring Zhang Hanyu and Eddie Peng].

  To conclude, 2015 seems to have been a special year for you, as you composed a stunning score for your biggest film and biggest success yet with Dragon Blade, as well as dedicating your gorgeous A Tale for Three Cities score to your mother. After these creative highs, what challenges do you look forward to in the future ?

Well that is a difficult question. Every new movie is a challenge to me ! After working on a couple of action films, to then jump right into a drama is challenging. I was approached by a studio to work on a Chinese/ Bollywood movie, if that works out it would be super challenging for me ! As a composer I am constantly looking for breakthroughs in my works, maybe a new approach to scoring, or maybe exploring different sonic plateaus, but you know what, it is all easier said than done. So I think I will just bear those in mind and keep writing good melodies ; breakthroughs often come when they are least expected.

I’d like to wholeheartedly thank Henry Lai for taking the time, in his heavy schedule, to answer my questions. 

You can find and buy Henry Lai’s scores on CDbaby, YesAsia, Amazon or iTunes. His latest release – the score to Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade – is just out, and you can buy it here.

 


SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS :

The Kung Fu Scholar (1994 – Norman Law)

Love, Guns & Glass (1995 – Ivan Lai)

Dangerous Duty (1996 – Wilson Tong)

…Til Death Do Us Part (1998 – Daniel Lee)

Moonlight Express (1999 – Daniel Lee)

A Fighter’s Blues (2000 – Daniel Lee)

Beijing Rocks (2001 – Mabel Cheung) – Best Original Film Score & Best Original Film Song nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards

Star Runner (2003 – Daniel Lee)

Traces of a Dragon (2003 – Mabel Cheung)

Dragon Squad (2005 – Daniel Lee)

My Name Is Fame (2006 – Lawrence Lau)

Heavenly Mission (2006 – James Yuen)

Bullet & Brain (2007 – Keung Kwok Man)

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008 – Daniel Lee) – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards & Best Composer nomination at the Asian Film Awards

Storm Riders – Clash of Evils (2008 – Dante Lam)

Beast Stalker (2008 – Dante Lam)

The Sniper (2009 – Dante Lam)

Echoes of the Rainbow (2010 – Alex Law)

Fire of Conscience (2010 – Dante Lam)

14 Blades (2010 – Daniel Lee)

Black Ransom (2010 – Keung Kwok Man)

Stool Pigeon (2010 – Dante Lam)

The Road Less Traveled (2010 – Derek Chiu)

The Lost Bladesman (2011 – Felix Chong & Alan Mak)

White Vengeance (2011 – Daniel Lee) – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards & Best Original Score Award  at the Hwayu Golden Song Music Awards.

The Four (2012 – Gordon Chan & Janet Chun)

7 Assassins (2013 – Xiong Xin Xin)

Unbeatable (2013 – Dante Lam) – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards

The Stolen Years (2013 – Barbara Wong)

Prophecy (2015 – Zuri Rinpoche)

Dragon Blade (2015 – Daniel Lee)

To The Fore (2015 – Dante Lam)

A Tale of Three Cities (2015 – Mabel Cheung)

Time Raiders (2016 – Daniel Lee)

Operation Mekong (2016 – Dante Lam)

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4 Comments

  1. Bright Chen

     /  November 30, 2015

    Fascinating man, and a great interview to boot. This maestro is definitely on my radar now, after his amazing year in 2015.

    Reply
    • Thank you ! I thought it might be of interest to you, since I’ve noticed you pay special attention to Asian film music.

      Reply
      • Bright Chen

         /  November 30, 2015

        You assumed correctly, but if I have to be honest, my knowledge of Asian film music is only moderately plentiful in the Japanese realm. My homeland’s film music’s limited nature in the west makes it very difficult for me to find, enjoy and analysis.

        Reply
        • True, and that’s why I’m thankful for Henry Lai’s frequent releasing of his scores.
          Regarding Japanese film music I’m actually trying to get in touch with Kenji Kawai, but he’s not on facebook and for now I lack the connections and clout to reach him otherwise…

          Reply

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