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Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

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Resounding Silent Film
Transparent texture fits Little Toys

By Loh Jee Kean

Little Toys by Mark Chan and Friends
13 June 2003, Esplanade Theatre

Coincidentally, I have been watching several black-and-white movies in the comfort of my home on a twenty-one inch screen. One of those movies that left a strong impression was La Strada, simply because of its haunting leitmotif, the recurring theme throughout the movie. Today, I had the opportunity to experience a performance of Mark Chan’s music for Little Toys (1933), an acclaimed silent movie directed by Sun Yu. The audience was given a visual treat of the movie in its entity, with Chan’s work, played simultaneously by a small ensemble of nine musicians.

To cut long story short, Little Toys depicts the tragic life of a toy maker (played by Ruan Lingyu) who is widowed and eventually loses both her children. The whole movie is balanced, with a wide threshold of emotions and its cinematography is simply beautiful. Chan’s task as a composer for this film was definitely not easy because the standalone movie can be considered a masterpiece.

My first experience with a concert of such nature was back in April 2001, when Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky was performed by the Latvia State Choir and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the University Cultural Centre. In contrast to Alexander Nevsky, Chan’s nonet configuration gives the music a more transparent texture, which suits the naïve natures of some characters in the film. By and large, Chan is able to capture the mood of the movie and he translates the characters into musical language. However, to say that Chan’s music is “New Asian” is to re-invent the wheel as similar musical vocabulary has already been used, and I personally do not find anything “new” about the music, certainly not the combination of both Eastern and Western musical instruments for his piece. The clichéd cinematic opening and ending is certainly not something really novel; in fact, one could also hear hints of motifs in the piano part that remind us of Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano. Chan’s music could have ended together with the film without the epilogue. I find it difficult to understand why Chan chose to end the music this way. At a microcosmic level, what makes the music attractive would be the nuances; Chan’s eye for the emotional adjustments in the film created some magical moments.

The anchor person in the ensemble would be the pianist, who created the impulse for the rest of the group, and with the wide range of notes, she established the mood of the music. Noteworthy is that most of the silent movies in the early twentieth century are accompanied by just one pianist. I must commend Belinda Foo, the pianist, for her sensitive approach to the sound of the piece, demonstrating how a set of identical notes can be imbued with very contrasting emotional qualities. It is a pity, that the Scherzo and dance-like motifs did not take off very well; a much lighter touch and articulated approach would have projected the sense of playfulness in the music, which I feel lacking in Foo’s playing.

On an ending note, I do take my hat off for Chan’s brave attempt to score for such a wonderful film – the poignant moments are simply unforgettable. At the end of the day, give the composer some credit for making us revisit the past alongside with his music, which transcended his response to the film.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


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  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

At the Leipzig Gewandhaus
Jason Wee reviews the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The Monastery of Mercy
Cyril Wong reviews Meredith Monk's mercy.

Thinking Global, Acting Local
Richard Lord reviews Singapore theatre at the Singapore Arts Festival.

Comedies of Manners, Manners of Comedy
Richard Lord reviews Nonsensical Idiosyncrasies and The Rivals.

Related Links

Mark Chan homepage
External link.

Mark Chan at the Singapore Arts Festival
External link to the Singapore Arts Festival.

Mark Chan at the Hong Kong Arts Festival
External link to the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Mark Chan article
External link to Fridae.


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