An Almost Film Composer in Beijing

by Nathaniel Murray

An expat in China rekindles his dreams of becoming a film composer when a friend in Beijing invites him to a partially constructed amusement park. This story was selected as a finalist in the Crossings travel writing competition.

A half-constructed building was the perfect place to half-fulfill a dream. 

The film crew arrived at Wonderland Amusement Park outside Beijing, a sprawling complex of red-brick castle walls, with conical watchtowers that could have rivaled Camelot. Behind these walls lay idyllic market streets, where Snow White and Maid Marian might have explored the shops hidden inside arched doorways, listening to madrigal music playing from the balconies. 

At least, that had been the intention. 

The park never opened. Financial and bureaucratic problems halted it mid-construction. What did get built now sat abandoned, with nothing moving but a hollow wind through empty town squares. One could almost see the ghosts of all the children who would have walked these lanes, donning plastic armor and asking their mothers for cotton candy. Vines and grass now overran the interiors, which were little more than a crisscross of steel and iron guts . Wonderland was the product of a 1990s boom in globalization, construction projects, and middle-class entertainment in China. And like any such boom, some projects fell through. 

Not unlike my former ambition to be a film composer, rooted in a college-era dream to become the next Howard Shore, after Fellowship of the Ring pushed me to change majors from physics to music. I had the perfect plan. Learn music theory. Compose increasingly larger pieces. And one day, reach that milestone and write a film score. 

But by graduation, I realized that a hobby was different from a career. Film scoring was a nice fantasy, but it would remain only that. 

So I thought. 

Years later, when I was teaching English in Beijing, a friend invited me to join a 48-hour filmmaking contest. His team needed someone to write the soundtrack to their project. 

Not that we took ourselves too seriously. How could you, when the plot of your story was the hunt for a deadly monster known as a foreigner, who turned you into—God forbid—a latte drinker, and—even worse—a Facebook user? 

We needed a creepy filming location for such a gruesome horror story. What could be creepier than an abandoned theme park, which was complete enough to feature a hideous puffy dragon mascot on a long-rusted welcome sign? To say nothing of the towering Cinderella-style palace spire—or at least its gray concrete inner frame—whose premises had long since been reclaimed by local farmers for their crops. 

While the crew and actors did their shooting, I walked around and took in the scenery. As the composer, I needed to capture the place’s haunted feel. In my staff notebook, I sketched out appropriately disturbing rhythms and melodies. Dissonant minor-seconds to raise tension and highlight foreboding. Harmonic changes based on the ominous tritone interval, which medieval composers considered to be the “devil’s music”. Occasional Elysian major chords to punctuate the predominantly Hadean minor chords. Because a dark story can only have an impact if it contains some light moments. Especially a story as dark as the search for a monster who turns you into a coffee drinker. 

As I strolled around, the magnitude of this unfinished theme park sank in. Pavilions. Spaces for restaurants. A giant superstructure of metal rafters, which, if completed, might have been a theater stage. Now, nothing moved under the structure but rows of crops, planted by local farmers who made whatever use they could of the surroundings. A fog of surrealism shrouded the entire space, with the spire spawning thoughts of Arthurian knights and ladies, in the middle of farms and villages two hours outside Beijing. Medieval Europe and contemporary rural China somehow existing in the same space.

The park’s centerpiece stood meters away, the palace spire looming skyward. The architects of this place had had major ambitions. Like much of China in the 1990s–boomtown era of rapid growth, big hopes, and some failed dreams. What would this theme park be like if it had been completed? 

It made me think about my own trajectory. If things had been different, what films could I have scored?

But I could only move forward. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with this opportunity to revisit a long-abandoned dream. 

Once filming wrapped, we spent the following day reviewing footage. It was brilliantly bad. Shots of the heroes, taken from a distance with a camera that sneaked from wall to wall. The monster hunting its prey. Close-ups of shoeprints and plastic coffee cups, as the heroes tracked the monster to its lair. And the tragic ending, where the heroes finally demanded lattes and a VPN to get on Facebook.

The music needed to be equally bad. Meaning, well written to suit the tone of the story. That is, not the same thing as just being crappy. The latter is easy to do. The former takes work. I opted for carefully constructed harmonies and counterpoints set to hideously rudimentary MIDI electronic instruments.

As I worked, I felt that I was experiencing many of the things that professional film composers go through. The director sets the tone and vision, then leaves the composer to work in relative autonomy, giving light guidance and the occasional, “Sorry, that won’t work here.” After receiving a rough cut of the film, the composer needs to time the cues and adjust different musical elements according to the sequence of shots. At times, the music is meant to stand out and have a melody. At others, it needs to sink into the background and be mostly ambient. This interaction between visibility and invisibility is a hallmark of film scoring, and one of the most difficult tasks to pull off in filmmaking . I could not claim to be doing it with any seasoned skill, but at least I was making the same attempt that all film composers do. Even if on a minuscule scale and with much lower stakes.

Our film did not win anything in the contest, and I have long since lost the original sound files. I might never be one of the great film composers. But for 48 hours, I had a small opportunity to work alongside them. I had reached that milestone, just in another way. 

In the end, Wonderland Amusement Park also ended up fulfilling its original dream, just in another way. The site has long since been demolished, replaced by an upscale shopping mall. Children now walk the streets, donning Adidas and asking their mothers for ice cream. Modern-day Snow Whites and Maid Marians explore the designer shops scattered throughout the idyllic, cream-colored atriums. Only the original palace spire remains. The sole remaining marker of what might have been.

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