Born in Paris to a music-loving family from Hue, Ton That An is an award-winning composer whose work brings together many cultures, from tradition to modernity.
Ton That An's film credits include numerous standout Vietnamese titles like Vợ ba (The Third Wife) (2018), Song Lang (2018), Giữa bóng tối và tâm hồn (Between Shadow and Soul) (2019), Thưa mẹ con đi (Goodbye Mother) (2019), and Ròm (2019). His most recent project was Tro tàn rực rỡ (Glorious Ashes), with director Bui Thac Chuyen.
Beyond Vietnam, he’s also composed music internationally for films like True Mothers (directed by Naomi Kawase), Rain in 2020 (directed by Lee Yong Chao), and Moonlight Shadow (directed by Edmund Yeo).
Cinema is only Ton That An's latest realm of artistry. Across his vibrant career, he’s composed for numerous different realms of performance arts, ranging from contemporary dance and musicals to symphonies and chamber music. A memorable milestone in his career was the Best Arrangement award at Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards 2019 for his album Forgotten West (西部), co-written with Taiwanese singer Sam Liao.
In an interview with Vietcetera, Ton That An spoke about where he finds inspiration for his music, the sacrifices he’s made along the way, and how he’s managed to build up his career across industries and styles.
Why did you choose to focus on composing film music in recent years?
There are many factors — I love music, of course, and I have always loved cinema ever since I was a child. But what motivates me is the joy of creating something with people, with artists whom I respect and admire, whose inner world, sensitivity and ideas I can relate to.
When producer Trần Thị Bích Ngọc approached me to write the music for The Third Wife, it came as a surprise. At that time, I was working on the [FEEL] IN/OUT art project in Saigon, and I wasn’t particularly thinking about composing for cinema. So to me, it was an opportunity to be seized.
Each new project is an adventure that allows me to discover and expand more. But I had no idea I would be spending the following years composing so much for films!
What’s your approach when composing music for a film?
There isn’t just one way, and it’s different for each film. But in either case, I always go where my intuition leads me.
When composing for The Third Wife, I was invited to come to the shooting, was given the screenplay, talked with the director and the actors, and found inspiration on the set in Ninh Binh. The area there was so stunning.
When I began composing for the film, I worked closely with the editor, Julie Béziau — who was also the editor of a few Vietnamese arthouse films, namely Bi, đừng sợ! (Bi, don’t be afraid!) and Cha và con và… (Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories) by director Phan Đăng Di, or Chơi vơi (Adrift) by director Bùi Thạc Chuyên. But it doesn’t always go that way.
For films such as Ròm, Goodbye Mother, or the documentary Rain in 2020, I started writing the music once the editing was finalized. Meanwhile, for Song Lang, Moonlight Shadow, and Glorious Ashes, the score is created as the editing is being done. It’s my preferred way, because there is lots of room for experimentation.
But in all cases, I like and want to spend more time growing ideas in my head to find the right tone and musical color for the film. I also spend a lot of time talking with the directors, even prefer to talk with them than watch the movies.
When I wrote the score for Moonlight Shadow, I based it on my musical ideas from the original book by Banana Yoshimoto and my long discussion with director Edmund Yeo. I only saw the film later, when most music had already been composed.
What is the biggest challenge you have experienced in this job?
Every new project is a challenge for me. However, the difficulties are like new doors that you open. Then it’s a matter of willing to step through that door and find yourself in a new, unknown land.
I would say one of the biggest challenges was composing for Between Shadow and Soul, the black and white (or silent) version of The Third Wife. Originally, director Ash Mayfair only intended to do a black and white version, just as it has been done for Parasite, Mother, or Logan. After watching a first draft of the black and white version that Ash has done with colorist Yov Moor, I felt the music didn’t quite match the monochrome treatment, as it had been composed in and with colors.
Then two weeks later, when she announced that it would be a silent film, I knew that I was on for a wild ride! A silent film means wall-to-wall music, but I didn’t want to simply replace the dialogue and merely be descriptive, as was the case in the old days.
I spent months figuring out how to approach the score, watched some silent films by Yasujiro Ozu, or films like Pandora’s box, which was restored and re-released with a new score. But then, they are old films. Nowadays, the audience’s sensitivity and knowledge of cinema are, of course, different.
I may have my own musical language and style, but I try not to repeat any formulas. Composing that score was a long process. I don’t know how some composers can work on so many films every year, but it takes time for me to find the right musical identity for each film.
It’s a dialogue between me and the film, what the film needs and calls for, and where all that will take me to. The challenge is to accept looking at a blank page, not knowing. Working on 'Between Shadow and Soul' — the black and white/silent reworking of The Third Wife — was indeed a unique experience!
Ròm has an impressive musical montage scene! What material did you use to create it?
For me, any sound can turn into music. For the opening theme in Ròm, I used sounds of an axe cutting wood, lift doors opening and closing, or sounds which I would have accidentally recorded during a session. Once again, it is very intuitive.
I let the music unfold by itself without closely following the images. Nothing is calculated. The ‘soul’ of the film will tell me what to do. Once I feel the music is made, I try it with the scene, and in the case of the opening music for Ròm, it all fell perfectly!
You said you only compose music for movies you’re interested in, so what makes you interested in a movie?
Of course, there is artistic interest. But once again, it’s about intuition. If it feels right, then I do it.
That said, I haven’t been working for film for a very long time and so far, the films I have composed were all first long-feature films. It’s a risk, a gamble, so I go with my instinct.
Of course, it does help if I know the director’s work. With Naomi Kawase, Edmund Yeo, or Lee Yong Chao, I had seen and loved their previous works, so I was thrilled when they asked me to compose for their films.
And more often than not, I don’t even have to choose myself. Given the style of music that I write, there is — I suppose — a natural selection. I don’t think a director who does a crowd-pleasing rom-com will ever think of asking me to do the score!
I guess it’s like when you become friends with someone.
What did you have to give up to pursue your artistic path?
That was… to rid myself of all the received notions about being an artist, and above all, this illusory Hollywood image of success. Illusions may be intangible, but they certainly can crush you with all their weight.
Once I began to deconstruct all those illusions, I began to see my path. And I think one thing I had to learn to accept was that an artist’s life is one of solitude.
Have you read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales? They often center on a protagonist — an artist who must choose between his muse and his love, eventually sacrificing his devotion to the muse. Of course, that’s a very 19th-century romantic notion, but I find it still holds true now. We are and always will be humans, after all.
In 2020, I was composing the music for Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), a ballet choreographed by Jo Kamanori, based on three tales by Hoffmann. And it struck me, as I was in the middle of the creative process, how those tales also mirrored my own life.
I suddenly had the strangest feeling that I was myself one of the characters from his stories, that my life was one of those tales in the book.
Find out more about composer Ton That An at:
Translated by Thao Van