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Soundtrack review: The fortress (Ryuichi Sakamoto – 2017)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: The fortress (Ryuichi Sakamoto – 2017)

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“The fortress” is a 2017 South Korean historical drama. In 1636, the Qing dynasty attacks Joseon. King Injo and his retainers, including Choi Myung-kil and Kim Sang-hun, hide in the mountain fortress city of Namhansanseong. They are isolated from the outside. Meanwhile, Choi Myung-kil insists that they enter into negotiations with the Qing dynasty, but Kim Sang-hun proposes that they keep fighting. Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote the score and I am always up for an Asian movie score.

Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of those composers with a distinctive sound that they rarely stray away from; I know that I am in for a minimalistic and reflective score when I see his name on the cover. Even if the opening cue is called “King’s march” the “strings version” that follows is key as there is nothing march like about this cue; it’s an elegant and sombre low key string theme that I expect to hear in full form further down the score. The Sakamoto sound I was expecting comes to play from the second cue “Vacant throne”; it’s the quiet atmospheric and experimental fusion sound that almost goes silent at times. It’s rarely melodic as this is not a quality of his sound but it creates a very textural soundscape; a cue like “Dispute” can’t be considered music as it’s silence with sparse Japanese drums beats every now and then and I feel the tension of a dispute without being able to say it’s an enjoyable cue.

Often in this score Ryuichi Sakamoto takes minimalism to a whole new level as the music just seems to dissolve at times. When he actually writes orchestral music it is beautiful and elegant, like in “King’s letter” which has almost a Ennio Morricone like quality to it. It’s in stark contrast with the textural pieces which are cold and grey. I am glad when the fight scenes start and the music accompanies them with a frantic and jumpy sound. Just like the atmospheric pieces there is little melody in the action cues as well as the music sounds sharp and pointy.

I am having mixed feelings while listening to this score; on one hand I am frustrated by the uncomfortable textural sound that sometimes is too much and on the other hand I appreciate the constant element of innovation in Sakamoto’s music as I do the sudden bursts of action energy. No matter what though this score does a great job in creating the sound of 1600’s South Korea as I can imagine it with the ethnical instruments in the fighting cues, the lack of melody and romance. Everything sounds real as sound effect instead of musical themes; the percussion could very well be the drums of the soldiers while the quieter pieces could very well be the sound of the surrounding nature. When an epic musical motif does come, like in “Absurd order battle 3” it makes an even bigger impact by comparison.

“The fortress” is a strange experimental score that sometimes is quite uncomfortable to listen to. There are a few purely orchestral cues that bring some warmth to the album but the overall tone is grey and opaque. I have yet to see the movie but I imagine this texture fits on the images like the armour on the joyless soldiers. Ryuichi Sakamoto keeps pushing the boundaries of his music and I always appreciate a composer who does something very different from what I usually here. I’m sure at a second or third listen this score might start making more sense.

Cue rating: 83 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 27 / 65

Album excellence: 42%

Highlights:

Highlights:
Kings Letter
Absurd Order Battle 3
Chilbok
Farewell
Kings March
Traitor (Piano Version)
Traitor (Strings Version)

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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