The previous essay of the film scoring analysis of Croaching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is revised for reference.
Film Music Criticism: The Croaching Tiger and Hidden Dragon
Music is the heart of a film. A film without music is just like a man without a heart, only a body of no feelings. From this sense, if the film only contains story-line carried out by characters’ dialogues, though it works, it hardly touches audiences’ hearts. Indeed, music is essential to trigger audience’s feelings and emotions, creating the overall atmosphere ready for them to immerse into an alien world of imagination.
Try to imagine the popular film in the 70s, “Jaws”. If this film has not used the driving two-note percussive motive to anticipate the approach of the huge white shark, or the film “Star Wars” without the now-famous noble trumpet fanfare theme to represent the princess’s lofty and majestic disposition, would the audience be so exciting and shocking? The top-selling of film soundtracks in the commercial market always evidences the important role of music in a film. Instead of the top-selling billboard that reflects the commercial value of the music in a film, its artistic value can be largely lies on the attribute of expressivity. Film music likens to the program music of western music in the 19th century. Program music can be story telling, attempting to describe a scene, a person, a subject, creating a related mood and atmosphere through sonic images. Similarly, Film music also can easily steps in an audience’s soul so as to express what neither pictures nor words can, creating a new meaning to the audience. Furthermore, music adds extra-dimension to a given scene, not only to emphasize but also to provide more body and depth to the story, to the characters, to the dialogues, and to the actions. To demonstrate the power of music in a film, let us discuss three scenes in The Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon.
In most action films, such as martial art film or Kung Fu film, the music always parallels and underscores actions. For example, in the scenario of ‘Catching the thief’, the plot is about the night fight between Jen and Shu Lien. Jen, because of her wild arrogance, she steals the precious antique sword which belongs to Li Mu Bai, the famous swordman of Wudong. Shu Lien attempts to catch her. The fighting occurs after Shu chases her for a period of time. Tan Dun, the composer, skillfully employs percussive sonority to create an exciting atmosphere by employing Chinese traditional percussions in this fighting scene. Doubtless a pair of Chinese drums can easily conjure audience up an imagination of a battlefield with the violent fight, since drum is always used in the real battlefield, so as to give signal to, and raise the valor of soldiers. Hollywood film music composers are without exception to exploit this handy, ready-made timbre, in many of the film scorings.
In the scene of ‘Catching Thief’, the two Chinese drums are used to enhance the both characters’ vigorous chasing on the roof. Shu Lien tries her best to catch Jen to get back the Li’s sword. By employing the musical devices of repeated rhythmic pattern (ostinato) and accelerando to speed up the tempo, the climax of this chasing scene is gradually built up. Furthermore, a pair of Chinese drums creates a contrapuntal texture so as to increase the intensity of the actions of two fighters. Hit points are multiplied because of the vivid percussive sonority. The pace of the fighting is thus intensified. And the audiences can easily be caught up with the lively actions and the violence of the fighting that made by the contrapuntal hit points of the heavy beating drums. However, is the violent mood the only purpose that Tan Dun wanted to create in this scene? Not really. Times Magazine once said that this ‘flying-running’ fighting was a fantastic exemplar of a Ballet dance, somewhat a Chinese style. Undoubtedly, Tan Dun successfully imbues the fighting percussive music with the noble, yet graceful, elements that the dance music should have possessed. Accompanying with the slow motion, the two fighters’ elegant gestures of “flying’ and “chasing” on the rooftop just looks like a pair of dancers swinging to and fro, and up and down, on the dancing stage. In the climax of the fighting scene, the volume is gradually increased, locking the audiences in a hysterical abyss, seemingly to transport them to participate to the fighting world, as it were, letting them to share the glory of win and the loss of failure with the fighters. To be sure, without music, nothing can be experienced indeed.
The scenario about how Jen loves at first sight with ‘Dark Cloud’ is also worth of considering. In this scene, the somewhat exotic style of music is played by yun, a Chinese ethnic plucked instrument, supported by the western strings at the background. This is a typical example of how music can locate a geographical location. The plot is about the leader of the gang of robbers, Lo, an local Xian Jiang whose nickname is called ‘Black Cloud’, comes to rob Jen’s troupe in the journey to Xian Jiang, an area of minority ethnic group. After Lo has taken Jen’s comb, Jen chases Lo, endeavoring to get it back. It is Jen’s arrogance and self-centered personality that forced her to do so. When Jen is fighting with Lo, the lively Xian Jiang dancing folk music enters. The fast tempo Xian Jiang dancing tune played by yun not only intensifies the pace of their fighting, but also creates an aura of Xian Jiang territory. The fighting between Lo and Jen, in this sense, is thus romanticized, seemingly to utter to audience that a romantic love story replete with exotic feeling just begins. The exotic feeling of the tune largely relies on the use of Arabic scale, or the Xian Jiang scale, which contains a distinctive feature of augmented second interval. Undoubtedly, the dance rhythm, together with the exotic style melody disperses the exotic, however romantic, aura. Afterward, while Jen stayed in the house of Lo for rest, the low-tone, quasi-murmuring cello stealthily steps in. The cello thematic melody easily reminds audience of the song ‘Love Before Time’, which elicits the endless sorrow of love, since their love of each other is not in the right place, as well as not in the right time. True, the romantic love, however ‘genuine’, is doomed to be a tragedy since Lo and Jen belong to different social status and backgrounds. No matter how deep is their loves, such ‘distance’, social status gap, still cannot be filled. The use of thematic song melody here not only enhances the coherence of the story-line, but also tells the audience that this ‘unequal’ love between Lo and Jen, which is emphasized by the conflicts aroused from Jen’s personal arrogance, as well as her deep longing for liberty, against with a generation of strict moral standard, is destined to be a tragedy, even in the very beginning as they firstly met.
One of a remarkable example that uses music playing against actions can be found in the scene about Li fighting Jen in the bamboo bush. In this scene, the swordman master Li is eager to convert Jen’s wild temperament by his skillful martial art. He is likely to accept Jen as his disciple of Wudong. So Li fight with Jen in order to give her a moral lesson. As they are “flying-running” on the top of the bamboo trees, the theme song murmured by cello enters alternately with a group of discursive glissando wind gestures. Such evocative wind gesture seems to be made from the reed-like artificial timbres, recurring irregularly in a strict repeated pattern, and searching for a rest but it fails. Unlike the fighting between Shu Lin and Jen in the previous scene, the music, at this moment, cannot match the fighting actions perfectly. The glissando reed-like gesture, together with the slow tempo of the moving ostinato strings, functions to enhance the ‘flying-fighting’ of Li and Jen on the tree top moving under the support of the slow motion shot. The overall effect is that the violent fighting between them has been transformed into an elegant ballet with two figures dancing to and fro on the bamboo trees, however, dispersing drop by drop of melancholy. The brutal excitement, thus, is softened because of the music, which is so sparse, tender with a little restless and agitated. Under the aegis of the supporting music, everything in this particular scene, no matter it is the visual images or the aural perception, is romanticised, so unattainable, so distant, and so uncertain that deeply interlocks audiences’ hearts. Furthermore, the occasional murmuring thematic cello of ‘Love Before Time’ seems to tell audience that whether it is the teaching lessons given by Li to Jen, or the unwilling regrets of Jen in her unsatisfied life, the future of Jen is destined to be dark and gloom without bright sunshine. When Jen jumps into the river, the volume of music increases, again, intensifying the feelings and the restless agitated emotions of Jen. Her wildness and arrogance have not yet been surmounted. She continues to step to the road of no return.
From the above analysis, it is clear that music written for film is not merely an accompaniment to the film, just for the purpose of bringing a nice melody for audience. On the contrary, music sounded behind each moving images requires composers’ unlimited imaginations and ingenuity, adding immeasurable artistic value to the film. This value inextricably links to music’s own expressive power. New meaning of each scene is generated because of this expressive power. Therefore, film alone cannot exists as a form of art without music. As a form of elite art, just like the traditional classical art music, film music can be regarded as an individual genre worthy of further scholarship in the advance academic horizon.
David Leung (theorydavid)