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CD Reviews: The House of Flying Daggers and Finding Neverland

The House of Flying Daggers ****


Sony Classical – SK 93561

20 tracks – 49:48

It's not my habit to begin a favorable review of a score by gushing over a song, but I have to make an exception here: "Lovers," the love song from Zhang Yimou's martial arts film, House of Flying Dragons, is beautiful, haunting and absolutely necessary. By "necessary," I mean that while the song does play during the end titles, it comes just after an exhausting, thrilling battle sequence. And this is not your average pop-song that's plopped at the end of a movie. In fact, it may be a difficult song for some to embrace, given its classical aspirations. It is the nearest I have ever heard an English language song sound like Chinese opera. As sung by the luminous soprano Kathleen Battle, it is as close to perfection as any film song since "Moulin Rouge."

This is Zhang Yimou's follow-up film to Hero, the successful Jet-Li movie that was made in 2002 but released in the U.S. in 2004. As far as the films go, I prefer Hero's lyrical beauty and craftsmanship over Daggers' messier, plot-heavy storyline concerning unstable Chinese dynasties, love triangles and rebellions. But Daggers is more emotionally stirring than Hero, most notably in terms of Shigeru Umebayashi's raw score. There is little of Tan Dun's elegant restraint here; Umebayashi is not ashamed of aiming for the heartstrings.

Japanese composer Umebayashi followed a similar path as Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, starting in an '80s new-wave band EX before beginning his career as film composer. He has mostly scored Asian films, including the last two by Wong Kar-Wei, but this should be his big break-out score in the west. Umebaysahi's wonderful score doesn't deviate too much from the standard Asian score, incorporating instruments like the bamboo flute, the pipa and the erhu. What makes it more effective than the typical kung-fu score is its intensity, both in the battle sequences and the love scenes. The standout action sequence doesn't even involve weapons; it's the echo dance that Zhang Ziyi performs with drums and a pebble. The love theme, on which the "Lovers" song is based, is played throughout the movie in different incarnations. It never ceases to be effective, from the simple erhu solo version or the full orchestra version. The Farewell theme is equally satisfying.

Some have accused Zhang Yimou of violating the sanctity of the martial arts genre, since his earlier films were dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou. (It's as if Woody Allen decided to make science fiction movies.) While I understand the concerns, what Zhang has actually done is lift the martial arts movie from the cult world into the art world. This recent tradition, started by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will only enrich the genre.     -- Cary Wong

Finding Neverland ** 1/2


Decca B0003429-02

23 tracks - 58:33

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's gentle score for Mark Forster's Finding Neverland is chock full of familiar sounds and textures. For the sentimental story of the film, it offers its accompaniment with lush strings, plinky glockenspiel and celeste, full sweeps on wind chimes, and of course, a children's chorus. Are you intrigued?

Now there's nothing wrong with that particular instrumentation, as Danny Elfman has proven time and again. But the painfully light melodies and easily digested harmonies of the score leave one wanting more. It's not that it is bad music, actually it's quite pleasant -- perfect for a Sunday brunch. But will that alone have hungry film score fans racing to the store, fighting over the last copy? Probably not, is my guess.

As there are always at least a few things worth noting in any half-decent score, here are my picks:

"The Marriage" is one of the few melancholy tracks and features sad strings, sorrowful woodwinds and solo guitar -- which makes me think that this marriage probably didn't work out. "The Pirates" adds a military touch with a highly tuned side drum adding a marching rhythm to the festivities. "Dancing With the Bear" introduces a mandolin to the palette and adds a refreshingly welcome exotic touch. But the overall vibe on this soundtrack is light -- really light, with most of the instruments playing in their upper registers. You won't find a 10-person French horn section in this crowd.

Regretfully, there are also a couple of tracks that feature solo piano improvisations with the themes from the film. These cuts instantly transported me back in time to that one horrible night when I was forced to sit at a piano bar with a date. Enough said.

Despite my reluctance to give this pleasant collection of tracks a more enthusiastic recommendation, please be aware that there will be people who will love this album. They just aren't the people I hang out with. I mean, would you really want to buy a soundtrack with a track called "Why Does She Have to Die?"?     -- Ian D. Thomas

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