kin leonn

Ambient musician Kin Leonn (above) makes his debut as a feature film composer for Anthony Chen's 'The Breaking Ice'. Credit: Lawrence Teo

Anthony Chen’s films are known for their hyper-realist, humanistic studies of people, which might explain why the acclaimed auteur’s earlier works Ilo Ilo (2013) and Wet Season (2019) had no music score. The Breaking Ice – Chen’s fourth feature film – moves to a different beat. As he had shared in interviews multiple times before, he had always intended to break away from the tight control with which he had approached his first two movies, hoping to be more carefree with his follow-up film. 

The Breaking Ice, which Chen describes as a “love letter to the young people of China” – inspired by reports on the country’s dispirited youths – is the result of that freshly unchained spirit. Set in the small town of Yanji in northeastern China and centred on the growing relationship between three 20-something adults, the 97-minute-long opus is also his first work that places such heavy emphasis on the use of music. “This film is about youth. And I knew I wanted music to capture the energy of it even as I was conceptualising the script,” says Chen. 

This led him to enlist the Singapore composer and electronic artist Kin Leonn Ho – better known by his stage name Kin Leonn and beloved by the artistic crowd for his deeply evocative sonic tapestries rich in ambient, nature-inflected sounds – to create the score. That the 28-year-old’s only other experience arranging music for a show was for the colourful 2022 documentary Baby Queen, which traces the life of the young Singapore drag queen Opera Tang, didn’t matter.

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Says Chen: “I discovered Kin’s music on Spotify and found it sensual and emotional. We happened to both be based in London at that time so I reached out to him not long after I had the idea of this film, thinking his music would be perfect for it. It was a leap of faith, but I wasn’t wrong.”

Here, Ho himself walks us through his journey of taking on this task and where he’s headed to next.

Tell us: How early on in the production of The Breaking Ice were you roped in to work on the score?

“From the very start! Anthony sent me an early script and he was also constantly sharing with me rough scenes and updates while he was on set in Yanji. I was invested from the beginning and we were constantly discussing ideas and figuring out what the film could be.”

How does one create a film score and how is this process different from what you usually do as a musician?

“I’ve learnt so many things working on The Breaking Ice. Each scene has its own intention so each musical moment requires a very specific purpose. At the same time, the bigger picture needs to be taken into account so that there is an overall build-up in the emotional storyline. It’s a long-form project that is constantly evolving based on the director’s vision and that makes it a lot different from a one-off performance or a smaller composition.”

Walk us through your creative vision for the film’s score.

“Based on the script and rough shots Anthony had sent me, I devised a kind of textural palette to match the cold beauty of Yanji’s landscapes. To go with the visuals, I wanted to use sounds that specifically have an icy, glossy, shimmering texture to them. At the same time, I wanted the whole soundtrack to feel like a restrained love story: occasionally melancholic, but always heartfelt.”

As a young musician and artist, what are your views on the role of music in film?

“Generally speaking, people don’t really intentionally listen out for the soundtrack while watching a film. The music usually just sits there to accompany scenes, but rarely jumps out at you. In a sense, the music is sidelined to a somewhat predictable role in the background. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it just depends on what elements each individual director chooses to prioritise in his or her work. I’m still new to film scoring, but I eventually want to create music for films that subverts this. I’d like to be able to push boundaries creatively so that the production relies on music to be a central storytelling device instead of simply providing an accompanying ambience.”

What are your own favourite memories of music in film?

“Some of my favourites are when Ryuichi Sakamoto’s main theme for The Revenant comes on – when the strings swell over the utterly quiet bleakness of the northern landscape on screen. Or John Tavener’s Funeral Canticle in the opening scene of The Tree Of Life. Oh, and Arcade Fire’s Photograph in Her when it plays out over the film’s montage of silent memories… These are all scenes in which the music leads and becomes the emotion.”

Besides scoring for The Breaking Ice, you’ve been involved in a few other major projects: You had your first art show last October, for example, and have an ongoing sonic installation at the ArtScience Museum. Where do you feel you’re at now in your career and practice as a musician?

“My current practice is one of world-building – of sonically transporting listeners from a given space into a new imaginative territory where their minds are free to roam. It’s in this mental space that people are able to observe themselves and the reality around them from a less coloured, more detached lens. I’ve also conducted a couple of ambient meditative sessions with the wellness venue Altered States with the same goal in mind. It’s been a meaningful practice that I’ve been exploring in the past couple of years.”

Has there been a point where you’ve felt like, “okay, I’ve made it as an artist”? 

“No, and I don’t believe there will be. I don’t think there should be thoughts about ‘making it’ as an artist. It should only be about ‘making’.”

How necessary would you say a formal education in music is to achieving what you have accomplished to date?

“Not very necessary, I think. Of course, I can’t ignore the impact that studying in London (where he completed a degree in music mixing and mastering at the London College of Music) has had on my career, but this came more from the people I met and the subcultures I immersed myself in as compared to school itself. I picked up some technical ability, but much of my inherent taste and technique stems from a very personal journey of discovering music and pursuing this affection organically on my own without having someone tell me what’s right or wrong. I never took classical lessons either because I’m the kind of person who only gets interested in something if teachers give me a whole ball park to play in instead of giving me rules to follow.”

What’s Kin Leonn like on a normal day then?

“I watch a lot of content on primitive technology or bushcraft (the honing of skills and knowledge to survive in the outdoors) – rural village stuff is great. And I document the life of a pug that lives with me now on the Instagram account @didiwebcam.”

What in music now – particularly that by young emerging musicians – intrigues you and compels you to seek it out more?

“When young people get together in communities and genuinely spend every week together in the same spaces and share inspiration. Shoutout to the independent store Shrub over at Golden Mile Tower with their regular in-house DJ nights and shoutout to music production house PK Records in Geylang.”

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians here?

“Don’t mindlessly channel exterior influences into your own art. Ask yourself what drives your taste and your meaning for creation. Link it back to who you are in your soul. And always remember the actual power of music and why you loved it in the first place.”


Photography Lawrence Teo Art Direction Jonathan Chia Hair Delcine Chan/Kizuki+Lim Makeup Beno Lim, using MAC Cosmetics

This article first appeared in the Sept 2023 Make It Work! Edition of FEMALE