Leon Ko Sai Tseung’s lineage seemed to predestine him to writing music for stage and film: the son of legendary Hong Kong actress Lucilla You Min – who won ‘Best Leading Actress’ at the first ever Golden Horse Awards – and the grandson of Cantonese Opera artist (and occasional silent film actor) Bak Yuk Tong, his career as a composer of Cantonese musicals has been rich in awards and popular acclaim, with all of his four creations, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Legend of the White Snake, Field of Dreams and The Passage Beyond, having won best score at the Hong Kong Drama Awards. This, in addition to being a driving force in the recent revival of Cantonese Opera and an occasional musical director for Jacky Cheung’s world tours. Ko’s works have travelled as far out of Hong Kong as London’s London’s Stratford East Theatre and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
That’s not even mentioning his career in film scoring, which is the topic of the following interview, and equally successful as his other musical ventures. After only eight film scores – for major directors like Peter Chan, Derek Yee or Dante Lam – Leon Ko is already a Golden Horse Award winner and a two-time Hong Kong Film Award winner, with four additional nominations. You can sample his work for film and stage at his website. You might be struck by Leon Ko’s versatility: there’s a world of difference between the atonal thrills of That Demon Within and the epic whimsy of Monster Hunt, or between the lyrical anguish of Dearest and the old-school playfulness of The Great Magician. Now as busy and in-demand as ever, he nevertheless graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Can you tell us about your academic background and how you came to be a film composer?
I grew up in Hong Kong and later got my Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA. I discovered musicals there and upon graduation I went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to get my master in musical theatre writing. I was a classically trained musician before wandering into pop music in Hong Kong, then venturing into musical theatre which brought me to film music. My first feature film score came about after Mr. Peter Chan Ho Sun saw a stage musical of mine in Hong Kong – an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan – and asked me to work on his film Perhaps Love, which was a movie musical. That in turn called for my pop music and classical music skills, so I guess it came around full circle.
Did you find scoring a movie musical different from scoring a stage musical? What are your memories of this first foray into film scoring?
I think I had a relatively easy transition from stage musical to film musical because of Perhaps Love. The fact that the movie relied heavily on musical numbers was a huge shock-absorbent for me. The obvious difference between scoring a movie and a stage musical is that for movies I usually belong to post-production whereas I always take the driver’s seat in a stage musical. There will be no show without the score and hence I have a lot of control over the storytelling and artistic direction of the piece from the get go. Perhaps Love was a rarity in that the creative process was much like that of a stage musical, with the exception that the director was already at the helm and there was a musical director on board and the story was pretty much written. It was a long process for a Hong Kong movie – we had creative meetings for close to a year before shooting began. Every other week I would bring in songs or different versions of it to see how Peter felt about them. He was trying to find a different convention from what I regarded as a natural concept in a musical, namely the way characters go from speech to song. We were all pushing the envelope, and thank goodness most of us were musical lovers!
Peter Kam is also credited for the music of Perhaps Love: did you work together or split the work? How was the collaboration?
We split the work so I wrote half of the numbers and he wrote the other half. In our creative meetings, we would look at the script and say “I will do this one” or “Why don’t you take a stab at this” and sometimes we would inadvertently work on the same spot and the director would decide which one he felt was more in the right direction. The one thing we never did was to co-write anything, even with the rest of the music score we split up the work accordingly.
You reunited with Peter Chan two years later on the epic The Warlords, which you co-scored with no less than three other composers: Peter Kam, Chan Kwong Wing and Chatchai Pongprapaphan. How was that process?
I remember time was extremely tight and a group effort was obviously the only way to go to get the score done. I was in New York at the time and Peter Kam and Chan Kwong Wing were in Hong Kong and I believe Chatchai was in Thailand. We never had a composers’ meeting and we all worked separately. There was a cue checklist though so we scurried to pick and choose whatever was left to be done. It was a miracle that the score actually came together like one piece while in fact we had very little idea what the other composers were doing, and in what style. I think there must have been some telepathy going on amongst us. I finally met Chatchai for the first time a year later!
In 2011 you worked with another great Hong Kong director, Derek Yee, on The Great Magician. How different is it to work with Peter Chan and Derek Yee?
I have always been an admirer of Mr. Yee’s work, both as a director and an actor. Before I met him, I heard that he could be very intimidating as a director, especially on the set. He was demanding indeed, but in a good way, and I definitely felt he had high regard for the composer of his movies. It also helped that he and I are both dog lovers! I would say both Peter and Derek are very down to earth directors. Peter may be more vocal about musical choices and decisions and Derek a little more laid back.
For Dante Lam’s That Demon Within, you composed one of your most striking scores, an atonal collison of orchestra, percussion, chanting and electronics. Such a radical scoring approach is rare in Chinese film music. Was it your choice or Dante Lam’s instruction? And for a composer who most of the time deals in harmony, how was the experience?
It was a frightening experience for me. First off, I had never done an action movie score before, while Dante was known for his adrenaline-pumping flicks. He asked me for a sample and I gave him a two-minute piece about a week later. I knew That Demon Within was going to be more psychologically-driven than action-packed so I used a lot of disturbing sounds and atmospheric pads to paint the basic canvas while on top I used a ghostly bagpipe. For me the bagpipe is an instrument whose sound is indelibly associated with the police force, yet I wanted to use it to create an unnerving and warped ambience. Dante liked that direction and the bagpipe theme worked its way into the opening sequence eventually.
I was nervous about the action scenes but I felt I had a pretty good grip on the rest of the score. I believe my theatre training was an immense help in shaping the characters and their journeys. Amidst all the atonal clashes and sonic violence, there were still important harmonic passages for balance of sanity and humanity. One of which was the Grandmother’s theme and its calmness which provided solace for the protagonist, and ultimately the audience. Another example was the ending music, which reminded us not to forget the goodness originally there in everyone’s heart.
Flash forward to the initial screening. After watching the movie, Dante became highly concerned about the music for the action scenes. He said he had never zoned out on his own screenings before this one. Taking that cue, I went back to the drawing board and used every fibre of my brain to tackle the scenes. That was decidedly one of the toughest points for me in my creative experience. After a few drafts, Dante finally gave his nods and that was a huge relief! That Demon Within happened to be the first of the three consecutive movies I scored that dealt with the darker sides of human nature [Editor’s Note: the other two being David Lee’s Insanity and Peter Chan’s Dearest]. While not quite in a depression, I was inevitably drawn into a world of gloom for a long time. Better not do that again!
Precisely, you scored just four films between 2005 and 2013, but three films in 2014. What place does film scoring have in your career, and what makes you choose a film to work on?
I am definitely not a prolific film composer. From a background of pop music and musical theatre, I found the film language very different from that of the stage, and it took me a long time to learn that film music cannot take center stage the way it does in a musical. The closest analogy is the underscore in a musical, when music underlines a scene or dialogue. I was fortunate to have the opportunities to work with some very established movie directors who were willing to take chances on a primarily stage composer. Film scoring has certainly become an important part of my repertoire at this point.
I don’t know that I will turn away any project unless I have an impossible schedule conflict. It will be even better if the film score requires a song, since I love writing them. However, if I had to choose between working on a film and a musical, I would always side with the latter. Musical is my home and movie is where I take my vacations.
Last year you composed the score to what is still the second highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt. How was scoring a big-budget fantasy film?
Monster Hunt was a huge ball of fun. From the start I had great rapport with Raman and initially I was only asked to write a song in the movie. They wanted something right out of a musical and that was the scene when the two monsters Zhu Gao and Pang Ying were captured and tried to beg their way out. Of course, what better way to beg than with a song! Then one song became two and eventually we ended up with four songs in the film, and somewhere in the middle they thought I might as well write the score too!
The funny thing is I never felt the pressure of a big budget fantasy movie. While the scope of the music should be big and might even take its cue from the traditions of Hollywood live action movies, the score should definitely be Chinese to the bone and have its own distinctive identity. One really special aspect of it is that all the songs have two versions, one in Mandarin and one in Cantonese, catered to both the Hong Kong and the Mainland audiences. Not only did I have to record the Mandarin artists in Beijing and the Cantonese artists in Hong Kong, I had to alter keys for particular singers, and one number had different genders in the two versions. All in all, the whole experience was excellent and certainly none of us knew the movie would do that well. It was a very good collaboration and the temperament and energy of the creative team and staff was what made it so special.
Only three of your scores have been released commercially: Perhaps Love, The Warlords and Monster Hunt. Are commercial releases of your work important to you?
I think the commercial release of a soundtrack is still extremely important. A score should be partners in crime with the visuals but it should also stand on its own, and the true test of that is how listenable it is on album. Besides, sometimes you write a great cue but in final mixing they decide to pull it way down and you can barely hear it at all, so having it on album is a way to give it justice. For Hong Kong movies however, it is not common practice anymore to have the scores published or released. It was done sporadically in the 1990s but record companies are not willing to put in money for that these days. Composers have the choice to publish the music online, but for me it does not have the same cachet like it used to.
So far, of which one of your scores are you the proudest?
I don’t know that I can pick my favorite score, because there is something in every score that I am quite happy with, even in the less experienced or less prepared ones. The main theme in Mr Cinema, the music for the Painting scene in The Great Magician, the songs in Perhaps Love, the insanity I didn’t know I had in That Demon Within, the fun and consistency in Monster Hunt – all of that I am proud to say I wrote them.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a musical in concert coming up in the beginning of June. It is a concert version of a stage musical I wrote in 2009 called The Passage Beyond. It is a very personal piece for me as it deals with death, afterlife and love in different forms. It is also rare for a Chinese musical to have a concert version, so it is definitely something very special.
I am also working on a new movie score and the film is adapted from a stage play. The director Roy Szeto is a seasoned stage director in Hong Kong and this is his debut as a movie director. He and I worked on a stage musical a while back and we definitely speak the same language. The score however, makes me nervous as it requires something schizophrenic and outside the box. Well, I suppose every movie score makes me nervous but since I am in the middle of this one it feels like tenfold!
There are a few movie songs I need to write this summer and a few new musicals to write for next year and after. I am also bringing another musical I wrote a few years ago, Field of Dreams, to Beijing next year. So all is good and exciting.
Many thanks to Leon Ko for taking the time to answer my questions.
FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS:
Perhaps Love (2005 – Peter Chan), with Peter Kam – Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Best Original Film Song (and Best Original Film Score nomination) at the Golden Horse Film Awards & Best Music at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival
Mr. Cinema (2007 – Samson Chiu)
The Warlords (2007 – Peter Chan), with Chan Kwong Wing, Peter Kam & Chatchai Pongprapaphan – Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards & Best Original Film Score nomination at the Golden Horse Film Awards
The Great Magician (2011 – Derek Yee)
The Last Tycoon (2012 – Wong Jing) (Song “Ding Feng Bo”) – Best Original Film Song at the Hong Kong Film Awards
That Demon Within (2014 – Dante Lam)
Dearest (2014 – Peter Chan)
Insanity (2014 – David Lee) – Best Original Film Song nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards
Monster Hunt (2015 – Raman Hui)
His Father’s Fantasy Life (2016 – Roy Szeto)