Chris Boardman Music Blog: May 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

Talent and Opportunity Abound - [Guest Blog]

Reflections on and Observations from the 2016 Canes Film Festival
Anik Bhattacharya 

            A few days ago I had been requested by Chris Boardman to jot down some thoughts regarding my experience at the 2016 Canes Film Festival, which took place from Apr. 29 - May 1st at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, including screenings of original shorts and short documentaries by both undergraduate and graduate students here at the University’s film school. I had the honor of writing the score for one of these films, and had the chance to see the final product at the screening on Sunday, May 1st, along with eight other such films - specifically, the third-year graduate thesis shorts - on display at that same screening. We often don’t hear a lot about the work happening at the film school, so these events are an eye-opening look into the unbelievable level of talent and creativity that the Department of Cinema and Interactive Media currently has to offer, and the superb opportunities which exist for collaboration between some of the student filmmakers there and the talented folks at the Media Writing and Production Department here at the Frost School. To give you a short glimpse into that experience, I thought I’d go into some detail experiencing some of the highlights from Sunday’s screening.

            I composed an original score for Shane Kinsler’s thesis film, A New Beat, a short, lively little tale about Julius, a geriatric heart transplant recipient who, much to the chagrin of his family, begins to exhibit the personality of his dead millennial donor - from his sudden urge to consume pizzas as well the music of Wu-Tang Clan. Things become significantly more complicated when Julius develops an affinity for the old flame of the dead donor, and has to come to terms with and control this strange, supernatural phenomena, the origins of which even he himself cannot explain. The score demanded several inklings of hip-hop here and there, and the film was therefore in part a collaboration with a local artist, who helped compose some of the original hip-hop tracks featured in the film. Perhaps the most appropriate is the upbeat, jazzy, and soulful groove which accompanies Julius as he undertakes his first “rap battle” in one of the later scenes. For the remainder of the score I concentrated on creating a series of electronic textures, whose thickness, thinness, softness, shrillness, darkness, hollowness, or richness I could seamlessly transmute in order to reflect the flurry of emotions - anger, sadness, wonder, confusion, and others - which permeate the somewhat eerie and supernatural atmosphere that pervades throughout this film. For instance, Julius’ fixation on the girl, Gabriela, is represented by a high, somewhat shrill noise which coincides with the squinting of his eyes in an effort to, perhaps, “see beyond” into some other dimension, evoking some sense that two individuals are connected together on a level which transcends the merely physical. Rather than use a purely musical leitmotif to that end, I decided a more “otherworldly” (for the lack of a better term) electronic texture was far more appropriate.

            The film itself was very well-received, and was quite possibly the most unique of all the stories featured in the showcase. As for the other entries, I should mention that six of the nine films this year were directed by Chinese students, some of whom even managed to conduct some shooting all the way overseas in China! How they secured the budget for that undertaking, of course, was the subject of some very interesting discussions I had with the directors afterward. The first of these was a rather somber, gloomy, and matter-of-fact film which featured absolutely no music, entitled Kao Shi, and directed by Zuxiang Zhao. The film is the story of a boy, Renming, about to embark on one of the toughest challenges in Chinese education: the college entrance exam. His tuition payments are jeopardized after his father is involved in an accident at his coal mine, but his professor, who has taken a liking to the boy, as a kind of “star student”, chooses not to reveal this to him in the midst of a grueling time of studying and cramming for the entrance exam. Instead, the professor, Chen Jun, decides in secret to personally bankroll the tuition, room and board, and even the food for his most promising student, without revealing his assistance to him. What seems like an innocuous feel-good story is punctuated by several rather poignant scenes, which reveal a struggle between meritocratic principles and nepotistic tendencies in modern Chinese society, as Chen Jun, struggling with guilt from his decision, attempts to drown his sorrow in alcohol, even getting into an argument with one of his colleagues in an effort to explain why he cannot simply guarantee entrance (to his preparatory school) to his own daughter, lest she decide to slack off on studying.

            Another such film which proved to be particularly memorable was Deer God, directed by Tomorrow Mingtian. The film has the feel of a documentary and is set somewhere in Heilongjiang or Nei Mongol province, where a historically nomadic ethnic group, the Oroqen, call home. Central to their way of life is the tradition of hunting, which, ever since the introduction of gunpowder, automobiles, and deforestation, has been significantly altered and endangered. Guan, a native of the steppes, wishes to bequeath his son and his family one last reminder of their native roots before the young family leaves for America, and sets out to hunt for some reindeer. Along the way we see a glimpse into Oroqen customs and an ancient way of life. Gaun finally sets his sights upon his quarry, but is intercepted by a group of poachers who shoot him in the shoulder as a warning to get off their turf. Defeated, he limps home, and sits silently next to his fireplace before the final scene shows the remains of his dead horse, also shot by the poachers as retaliation for his encroachment. The film itself is a masterwork of cinematography - some of the shots were captured from overhead drones, and are often accompanied by traditional Oroqen and Chinese music, diminishing the size and importance of the hunter to a speck among an ocean of snow, trees, dirt tracks, frozen landscapes, completely removing the viewer from the modern sights and sounds which characterize the village, and taking them back in time as Guan traverses the countryside. The score itself is just plain gorgeous, and ends with a heart-wrenchingly sad flute solo as we are shown the final remains of Guan’s horse. As it ends, we are left with a powerful message about the impact of reckless modernization and lack of oversight on the lifestyles and dignity of marginalized tribal groups.

            Last, but certainly not least, is Finding Buddha, directed by Zilong Liu, a film which nabbed a large chunk of the awards at the official ceremony which took place shortly after the screenings were complete. In this particular film, Eric, an affluent American businessman, leaves behind his wife and kids under the pretense of a “business trip” to come to China, seeking escape, refuge, and some kind of enlightenment at a Buddhist temple, where he hopes to find for himself a path to true happiness. Eric finds himself unable to follow the temple’s puritanical rules, and frequently sneaks out at night to go to local bars, where, after a first chance encounter, he meets often with his tour guide, a younger woman whose radio station jockey boyfriend rarely has any time for their relationship, is undergoing a similar crisis in her personal life, and the two form an unlikely friendship, exchanging stories and experiences from each other’s lives, and becoming each other’s therapists to a certain degree. The film seems to take on a certain path as the boyfriend of the young Chinese tour guide forgets their anniversary, and the crestfallen girl brings home the American to her apartment. Before what appears to be a moment of weakness for the two, the midnight show (which the radio jockey boyfriend is responsible for) begins, and he proceeds to propose to her on air. The film is a delightful set of sights, sounds, and colors carefully crafted to give a light-hearted look into a common trope (“Western socialite/tourist coming to Asia to seek enlightenment”) while preserving a sense of gravitas about the whole story. The score, composed by Chris Ryan, was my absolute favorite of the night, and included a mixture of orchestral and popular styles interspersed with a few inklings of Chinese instruments and melodies. As Eric finally comes to term with the fact that suffering is the ultimate source to enlightenment, and prepares to return back to his life in America, we are met with an excellent U2-esque ending score which accompanies his pensive taxi ride back to the airport.

            Premieres and screenings such as these offer insight into the level of quality of student works being undertaken at the University of Miami, and offers students a chance to locate and meet fellow creative persons with whom to pursue future collaborations, and the Sunday premiere left me beyond impressed. In speaking with some of the student filmmakers afterward, I learned that one student producer, Xinyue Chen, produced not one but two entire films - one, Finding Buddha, involved securing funding from a plethora of places to ensure that footage could be filmed with actors on set in Beijing, China. I was struck not only by the polished quality of the works showcased (some of these films were practically ready for Hollywood), but by the diversity and depth of the stories, a level of talent which I frankly didn’t even expect nor knew existed on campus! One of the directors jokingly admitted that were it not for assistance from one of the faculty members, who allowed a visiting actor to temporarily stay at his two-bedroom Miami apartment for ten days, his film simply could not have happened. I had the fortune of being able to speak at length and network with many of these talented minds, some of whom I hope I’ll have the chance to collaborate with in the future.

            Anik is a teaching assistant and graduate student at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, pursuing a M. Mus. in the Media Writing and Production program, and graduated with a B. Mus. in Music Composition at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music in 2015. He is an emerging multimedia composer and performing artist with an avid interest in composing music for film, video games, and interactive media. For more about Anik go to: