Original film soundtracks have never been considered a potential source of profit by mainland Chinese filmmakers. Their movies, especially the big-budget blockbusters, favour orchestral scores to leave the viewer breathless with emotion during key scenes. Taiwanese and Hong Kong films tend towards gentle, sweet tunes to convey more subtle sentiments. There is, unfortunately, a serious lack of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll films (besides the rather disappointing Beijing Rocks) which, in the West, have long been reliable sources of great movie soundtracks.
Sidestepping any political quagmires, the following ten soundtracks have been cherry-picked to include the best of the best from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Click the images below to listen to Chinese film's best scores and accompaniments.
Green Snake 青蛇
Dir Tsui Hark, Hong Kong 1993
Tsui Hark’s underrated 1993 period drama, an adaption of classic Chinese fairytale The Legend of Madame White Snake (白娘子传奇), tells the story of two lycanthropic snake sisters (one white; one green) journeying to the world of humans and falling in love with two moral men. The relationships are further complicated, as if that was necessary, by the scheming Buddhist monk Fat Hoi. Green Snake’s soundtrack is a collection of operatic scores and love ballads inspired by traditional Han Chinese instrumentations (mostly from the Song Dynasty) and Buddhist music offering a real flavour of exoticism.
Composed/performed by James JS Wong (黄沾偕), Mark Lui (雷颂德), Winnie Hsin (辛晓琪), and Sarah Chen (陈淑桦) Rock Records & Tapes, 2001
You and Me 我们俩
Dir Ma Liwen, China 2005
Known as the frontman of pop metal band Black Panther and, in entertainment circles, Mandopop superstar Faye Wong’s ex-husband, Dou Wei’s music is regarded as critically untouchable. This soundtrack album, composed for Ma Liwen’s emotional drama centring on an art student and her elderly landlord, brings Dou and his frequent collaborators Kai Shuo and Wu Na (collectively known as a project called Mu Liang Wen Wang [暮良文王]) together for an instrumental meditation on Beijing’s peaceful hutongs. As the notes of guqin gently echo between the dialogue and atmospheric sounds in each track (divided by scenes), the listener is skillfully drawn into the world of the movie’s protagonists.
Composed/performed by Dou Wei (窦唯), Kai Shuo (凯硕), and Wu Na (巫娜) Self-release, 2005
Farewell, My Concubine 霸王别姬
Dir Chen Kaige, China 1993
Chen Kaige’s Cannes-winning epic gathers some of the brightest stars from popular music and Peking opera spheres. Composer Zhao Jiping was behind several Fifth Generation films including Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994). True to form, his pieces are heavy and operatic with the exception of the final song from Taiwan’s Sandy Lam and Jonathan Lee that is a tender love ballad. The soundtrack also features several famous Peking Opera and Kunqu songs performed by Wen Ruhua, a top operatic singer and Leslie Cheung’s Peking opera instructor in the film.
Composed/performed by Zhao Jiping (赵季平), Wen Ruhua (温如华), Sandy Lam (林忆莲), Jonathan Lee (李宗盛) and Leslie Cheung (张国荣)
Rock Records & Tapes, 2003
Beijing Rocks 北京乐与路
Dir Mabel Cheung, Hong Kong 2001
The film is a mild, superficial reimagination of Beijing’s rock ‘n’ roll scene and its soundtrack could have been Beijing’s answer to 24 Hour Party People or Trainspotting. Instead, only three bands appear. But with films like Beijing Bastards failing to release their scores, Beijing Rocks is probably the only rock film soundtrack to be officially released, and deserves some credit for that at least.
Composed/performed by Henry Lai (黎允文), Zi Yue (子曰乐队), Wang Feng (汪峰) and Tang Dynasty (唐朝乐队)
Media Asia Music, 2001
Love in A Puff 志明与春娇
Dir Pang Ho-cheung, Hong Kong 2010
Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung’s romantic comedy inspired by the city’s smoking ban gave him a big break on the mainland. It was, however, a waste of his talent as an out-of-box-thinking filmmaker - check out his earlier, more experimental works like AV and Exodus. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is a light breeze next to the heavy selections we’ve made so far. Completely free of the Cantopop stereotypes, Alan Wong and Janet Yung composed a chilled-out collection of summery bossa nova, French repertoires and Cuban waltz. Highly recommended.
Composed/performed by: Alan Wong (黄艾伦) and Janet Yung (翁玮盈)
East Asia Music, 2010
A Better Tomorrow 英雄本色
Dir John Woo, Hong Kong 1986
Written by Joseph Koo, the composer behind numerous Cantopop classics and popular TV theme songs, John Woo’s action series honouring brotherhood and friendship is backed up by lashings of vintage synth, stripped-down electronica and cheesy-yet-melodic tracks. It’s the kind of classic ‘80s sound that will get you dancing secretly in your bedroom.
Composed/performed by: Joseph Koo (顾嘉辉) & Leslie Cheung
Dust in the Wind 恋恋风尘
Dir Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan 1987
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s nostalgic vision has been setting the theme for Taiwanese cinema and accompanying music for decades, and Dust in the Wind is a typical example. Originally recorded on a tape recorder with Chen playing soothing guitar ballads accompanied by the classically trained voice of Christine Hsu, the album is the perfect illustration of the film’s coming-of-age theme, beautifully shot rural landscapes and the bitter-sweetness of innocent love.
Composed/performed by: Chen Ming-chang (陈明章) and Christine Hsu (许景淳)
Crystal Records, 1993
The Sun Also Rises 太阳照常升起
Dir Jiang Wen, China/Hong Kong 2007
Another symphonic piece to give you goosebumps, The Sun Also Rises was director Jiang Wen’s box office catastrophe, and a playground for his wildest dreams. A crazy woman building pebble-dashed shelter in the middle of nowhere, a wild bonfire party found by wanderers on a desert safari, a speeding train stopped by a baby lying on railway tracks - all are vividly reflected in the soundtrack. Composed by renowned Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, a regular collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano, the orchestral chapters are as powerful as they can be sentimental, and the beautifully sung Xinjiang folk songs only add to that trophy.
Composed/performed by: Joe Hisaishi, Yizaiti Yiliyasi, Ye'erjiang Mahefushi, Asiha'er Maimaiti, and Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra
Universal Music Hong Kong, 2007
In the Mood for Love 花样年华
Dir Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong 2000
Wong Kar-wai is no stranger to soundtrack lovers and we are fully aware that In the Mood for Love has been credited enough in the press. It would just be sacrilege not to include it in a soundtrack round-up, however. It is a balanced selection of old-time jazz, 1930’s Shanghai love ballads, traditional Chinese operas, and Nat King Cole’s unforgettable ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’ played against Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung failing to express their affections to each other.
Composed/performed by various artists
Higher Octave OmTown, 2000
Dir Peter Chan, China/Hong Kong/ Malaysia 2005
Think of Chicago or Moulin Rouge! in Mandarin, and you get Perhaps Love, which features a mix of Shanghai jazz/swing oldies and newly composed songs. As many musicals are in the West, Perhaps Love tells the story of a love triangle and a battle between love and betrayal. All songs are composed with memorable arrangements that are easy to sing along to. It’s also purported to be one of the few Chinese musical films of the last 40 years.
Composed/performed by: Peter Kam (金培达), Jacky Cheung (张学友), Zhou Xun (周迅), Ji Jin-hee, and Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武)
EMI Music, 2005