A three-time Golden Horse Film Awards nominee, composer Anthony Chue has worked with some of the biggest names in the Hong Kong film industry, including Derek Yee, Wilson Yip, Law Chi Leung, Ivy Ho, Herman Yau, Jeff Lau, Benny Chan, Patrick Leung and Ann Hui. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, he’s also made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after arrangers and keyboardists in Cantopop, becoming a regular collaborator of Aaron Kwok, Vivian Chow, Sammi Cheng and Jacky Cheung among others with whom he’s been touring the world for over a decade.
You can sample his work for films, Cantopop and concert halls on his website, and here are a few questions he graciously agreed to answer.
Can you tell us about your academic background and how you came to be a composer?
I studied music at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, majoring in composition. The first few weeks were a shocker. I’d never heard of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and all of these great composers. Up until then, music to me was just Tchaikovsky, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Beethoven…. Bon Jovi, Madonna. Atonal music was entirely new to me.
During university, I still didn’t know what I was going to do after graduation. In fact, film scoring wasn’t even on my mind. I thought maybe I’d be an arranger or an orchestrator for the local TV station in Vancouver. Sometime during third year, I explored the possibility of working in Hong Kong. I was born there and had never lived there as an adult – our family immigrated to Canada when I was a month old. I thought it would be fun to check out Asia, and yes it has been fun! I had many relatives there, and in university I had met some new friends from there, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to adjust to life there. I moved to Hong Kong in 1996. I dished out many demo tapes. My first gigs there were arranging and programming synth tracks to pop tunes, which I still do today: I’ve done hundreds.
And how did you enter the film industry?
Now, we speak of networking, meeting as many people as you can, “it’s who you know and not what you know”. Back in Vancouver during university, I had met a friend from Hong Kong who had a friend that worked for a music production company as an assistant/engineer. We hooked up and we became friends. He played drums and we even had a band together with a few others of his friends. The music production company he worked at was run by Clarence Hui, and Chiu Tsang-Hei (Ah Hei), very famous music producers. One day I received a call from them saying Clarence needed help with a film. I was so excited. I’d never thought I’d be doing film one day. My mind flashed back to all those summers spent listening to Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, John Williams, etc.
So, my first involvement with film was orchestrating and arranging Clarence’s and Ah Hei’s score to Viva Erotica, starring Leslie Cheung. It’s “who you know and not what you know”, right ? My name got around and I eventually met composer Peter Kam. I began orchestrating some of his films too, such as Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy. Later, he’d hire me to compose short pieces of music for his films, and eventually, he’d get me to co-score films, sharing credit. I’ve co-composed a few scores with him as well as with Chiu Tsang-Hei, mostly between 1996 and 2004. My first time doing a score all by myself was in 2005. It was Benny Chan’s Divergence, starring Aaron Kwok. I was nominated for a Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for Best Score, and Aaron Kwok won Best Actor.
There seems to be two main strands in your filmography: thrillers and big action films for Benny Chan or David Lam, or intimate dramas and comedies for Patrick Leung or Ivy Ho. Which genre do you prefer scoring?
Yes I’m a bit surprised myself I can do both those genres – they are so different! I often ask myself, would I rather do action thrillers or dramas? Well, action thrillers are a lot more work – music almost all the way through, and more tracks, thicker layers of orchestration. Love dramas, on the other hand, require strong melodies. If you asked me years ago, I would’ve said I prefer action thrillers because not I’m not a melody person. But maybe because of age (chuckle), I’m now getting better at writing melodies, and I think I’m getting too old for action thrillers!
Having said that, I think I’m also getting better at scoring action thrillers, only because I’m getting better at film scoring in general. We learn as we do our craft. Everyone improves at what they do, whatever they do. Of course quite often, action thrillers will have quiet melodic moments, like in Benny Chan’s Divergence, which is an action thriller with an underlying love story. It talks about the disappearance of the detective’s (played by Aaron Kwok) girlfriend. David Lam’s action thriller Z Storm also needed melodic moments here and there. In fact, he said so before I even started work.
What is your artistic relationship with those directors like?
Every director is different in their approach, and way of working. David would ask me to write some themes even before showing me the film. We’d talk about the film, the story, and he’d ask me for demos already. Ivy Ho studied a bit of piano as a kid and loves classical music. In fact, she is quite familiar with classical repertoire – more so than me! She’d say things like “you know Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto?”, and I’d pretend that I do.
Benny Chan, on the other hand, doesn’t talk much about the actual music. He doesn’t have much opinion on the music, at least not before I start. In fact on Divergence, he didn’t even request a love song performed by lead actor Aaron Kwok ; I had to sell him that idea. I was maybe twenty minutes into the movie when I realized that the piano love theme I had been using in the first few scenes could be a song. So I recorded a vocal demo and sent it to Aaron Kwok’s manager, and she convinced Benny that it would be a great idea to have a theme song in the movie.
Which of your scores are most proud of, and which were the most difficult to compose?
Tough question. If I really had to choose, maybe the score to Divergence. The love theme really worked well, both as a piano theme as well as a love song sung by Aaron Kwok. Also, I was able to compose a variety of different genres of music for this film. For example, I composed a piece for choir, chanting in Sanskrit, and in another piece, I had a solo tenor voice singing in Latin.
The most difficult one… hmm… all of them! Well, hard to say. But the later ones I did – like City Under Siege, Z Storm – at least ‘seemed’ easier, because I was better at it by then – I’d done many by then! So by that logic, perhaps the most difficult ones were the first few I did? That would include Divergence, and Invisible Target. Of these two, maybe Invisible Target was more difficult. There was a lot of action and fight scenes in that one, especially the last twenty minutes or so. And it was long!
Outside of films, you’ve performed and toured with major Cantopop stars like Aaron Kwok, Jacky Cheung, Sammi Cheng or Coco Lee. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes that’s an entirely different kind of gig. When I’m composing for film, I’m all alone at the keyboard and computer, for weeks. It’s a lonely job, in a way. But when I do these live shows, I interact with other musicians; it’s a different kind of fun. I work with Aaron Kwok and Vivian Chow as their concert tour music director so I’m more involved, when I do their shows. I rearrange their songs, medleys, and compose incidental music.
Aaron Kwok is a very good dancer. His concerts are like dance shows. Composing and rearranging songs in his show is like film scoring, in a way. There is a lot going on on stage, visually, and I have to take care of the music to everything that happens visually, like syncing with the dancers, stage movements, or videos during his costume change. On show, I play piano and keyboards, and it’s a lot of fun performing in a coliseum of ten thousand people, even though we are backing musicians and not the main performer.
With only three score in the past five years, would you say the arranging & performing has taken precedence over film scoring, and if so is that out of preference?
I wouldn’t say performing and arranging has taken precedence over film scoring. Throughout my career, 20 years so far, I’ve always just done whatever I’m called to do. Some years, I do more shows than films, some years I do more film than arranging pop songs. Some years, none of anything ! It’s a jungle out there ; I never know what I’m going to get, and there’s no guarantee of anything. Though in general, arranging pop songs has always been the background. I don’t really have a preference but I get the most satisfaction out of film scoring because I’m actually composing, and not merely arranging or performing something someone else composed.
You’ve also written concert music. How did it come about and what place does it have in your career today?
Ah, that’s another world, writing concert music. I haven’t done much in this area; only a few symphonic pieces. It’s very different because when I’m doing music for “work” (eg. film), I’m given guidelines – I’m following directions. Even if the director doesn’t have many opinions, I’m following the flow of the film. The scenes in the movie already dictate to me the genre or the mood of the music. When I compose my own concert music, I have nothing to go by. I’m the boss! The piece of music can be anything. Anything! In a way, it’s harder. It requires a different mindset perhaps – taking orders like a waiter or a chef vs. “do something, do anything you want”.
I first started composing when I was in high school. I wrote a few pieces in university too, but not much once I entered the working world, until one of my music teachers at UBC, Martin Berinbaum, emailed me in 2005 and said that the UBC Wind Ensemble was doing a tour of Hong Kong and Taiwan: “why don’t you write a piece for us”. I thought, wow, that would be cool! It took me weeks to start. I didn’t know what to write. My last symphonic work is Mount Shasta On the Way, written in 2009, for euphonium and orchestra. In around 2008, I met the conductor of the Millennium Youth Orchestra in Hong Kong. She asked me to write a piece for the orchestra at around the same time I was exploring works for the euphonium. I had just bought a euphonium too, to play around with. I played the trombone in high school and university.
I thought to myself, perfect – I’ll write a piece for euphonium and orchestra, since the euphonium, being mostly a band instrument, is rarely used in the orchestra. I first named it “Yoof”, as I was writing it. Now, I don’t really have a career of writing concert music, but I’d like to explore this area. I hope to have the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra – any symphony! – perform one of my pieces one day. The VSO does an annual series of new works; I attended two nights of it last year. If anyone has any connections to that, let me know!
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’ve just finished S Storm, which is in the same series as Z Storm which I did two years ago. The films, directed by David Lam, are action thrillers that talk about corruption. This is supposedly a very popular topic in China, for some reason… This was my first time scoring something in the same series – I used the same main themes I composed for Z Storm, and it didn’t take me as long to score it. Okay, I did copy and paste some cues from Z Storm, but hey, it’s the same series!
At the moment, I’m working on song arrangements for a singer participating in a TV show in China called “I Am A Singer”, which is similar to “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent”. And both Vivian Chow and Aaron Kwok have some live concerts coming in the summer. So I shall be practicing my scales on the piano very soon!
My heartfelt thanks to Anthony Chue for taking the time to answer my questions.
FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS :
Viva Erotica (1996 – Derek Yee & Law Chi Leung), with Chiu Tsang Hei
Bio Zombie (1998 – Wilson Yip), with Peter Kam
Double Tap (2000 – Law Chi Leung), with Peter Kam
Born Wild (2001 – Patrick Leung), with Chiu Tsang Hei
La Brassiere (2001 – Patrick Leung & Chan Hing-Kar), with Chiu Tsang Hei
Stowaway (2001 – Clarence Fok), with Peter Kam
Second Time Around (2002 – Jeff Lau), with Chiu Tsang Hei
Golden Chicken (2002 – Samson Chiu), with Peter Kam
Mighty Baby (2002 – Patrick Leung & Chan Hing-Kar), with Chiu Tsang Hei
Men Suddenly in Black (2003 – Pang Ho Cheung), with Peter Kam – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Golden Horse Film Awards
Good Times, Bed Times (2003 – Patrick Leung & Chan Hing-Kar), with Chiu Tsang Hei
Papa Loves You (2004 – Herman Yau), with Peter Kam
Divergence (2005 – Benny Chan) – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Golden Horse Film Awards
Invisible Target (2007 – Benny Chan) – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Golden Horse Film Awards
Claustrophobia (2009 – Ivy Ho)
Crossing Hennessy (2010 – Ivy Ho)
City Under Siege (2010 – Benny Chan)
All About Love (2010 – Ann Hui)
Reign of Assassins (2010 – Su Chao Bin), with Peter Kam – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards & Best Composer nomination at the Asian Film Awards
Shaolin (2011 – Benny Chan), with Nicolas Errèra
Missing Out (2014 – Gilbert Tam)
Z Storm (2014 – David Lam)
Two for the Night (2014 – Ivy Ho)
S Storm (2016 – David Lam)