Kim Ly is Saigon movie royalty. He’s produced and starred in two films so far, and in the process he’s become a tabloid fixture. That’s also due to his relationship with singer Ho Ngoc Ha. But Kim Ly’s as happy off-screen adapting Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer for TV, or building the lifestyle brands Nectar and Airinum, or simply taking in a movie, as he is in the spotlight.
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Almost as soon as he arrived in Vietnam Kim Ly was catapulted to fame by his tough-guy turn in 2014 movie Huong Ga. The Swedish-Vietnamese actor had decided to trace his Vietnamese heritage (his father is Vietnamese) back to the source. There have been regular trips to LA and back to Sweden. But Saigon is home. And the fledgling movie industry here has provided lots of opportunities. In 2018, he produced and starred in Saigon Bodyguards opposite Thai Hoa that was nominated for a Vietnamese Golden Kite Award for best film. Rights to remake the movie were recently bought by AGBO who produce the Marvel franchise films.
Lately, Kim’s been satisfied to be a little more low key attending the occasional event with partner, Ho Ngoc Ha. Adapting The Sympathizer for the small screen (with a big-name director on board). And launching his own organic juice and smoothie brand, Nectar, and the premium airmask company, Airinum, in Vietnam.
With a career mostly spent in film, we wondered which are Kim Ly’s ten favourite songs from movie soundtracks. We met up at one of Saigon’s coolest retro theatres, the huge Hoa Binh Theatre in District 10, to ask him about the film songs that have made the biggest impression on him for the latest in our Guest Mix series.
What does music mean to you?
Music means so much to me. It’s constantly around me and obviously the music I listen to often reflects the mood that I’m in – or at least the mood I want to be in. So the tracks I play – usually on iTunes or YouTube, as I have to confess I haven’t got into Spotify yet – can be aspirational, to pick me up or to chill me out.
Music gives me a whole lot of energy and at times it’s also very inspiring. I’ll play MHD’s “Afro Trap Part 7 (La Puissance)“ before a workout. Or dust off some Dusty Springfield – tracks like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love” – when I’m in a more introspective mood. I’m such a sucker for those old love songs with the heavy saxophone and smooth vocals. That track was first recorded for the Casino Royal soundtrack. So it connects to the theme of my mix here — songs from movies.
What was your first meaningful experience of music?
The first meaningful music experience was definitely when my mom played the Papageno intro from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. It was directed by Ingemar Bergman. It’s a vivid moment until now and it’s still a fantastic piece of music.
There are so many deep connections to music from my childhood growing up in Sweden. Some of them embarrassing now. It pains me to say, but in my early-teens, in the mid-nineties, I loved Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe”. We had no idea what the lyrics were about – or who Cotton Eye Joe was – but those banjos and violins and that thumping beat appealed to me and my friends at the time. And the band was Swedish. It was on one of those compilations that Warner Music put out, maybe Absolute Music 6.
Then there were the typical coming-of-age tracks. “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams and Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”. The soundtrack to teenage romances…and teenage break-ups.
What part does music play in your day-to-day life?
It’s a bit of a cliché – but music is like breathing…it’s a constant. The moment I wake up I connect my iPhone to my Bose speaker and play something. I have that obsessive thing where I listen to the same song over and over and over again. Until one day I stop.
Some tracks stay with me. Like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under The Bridge”. I read that lead singer Anthony Kiedis wrote it but wouldn’t even share it with the band because he didn’t feel like it fitted with the rest of their work. Producer Rick Rubin intervened. And the rest is history – a timeless track about feelings of alienation from friends but a deep connection to where you are. I feel the same connection to Saigon. I think that track also revealed a more sensitive side to the band that helped take them to mainstream success – I think we all have a sensitive side.
At the other end of the spectrum, from dark to light, is Elton’s “Tiny Dancer”. It’s a classic. It radiates LA sunshine (which is where it was written). The way Elton’s vocals during that era build, and switch tempo, and then swell to a crescendo are incredible. Truly life-affirming.
What’s the most underrated genre of music? And the most overrated?
There’s a big metal scene in Scandinavia. But I could never get into it. Bands like Rammstein are so abrasive. For me, metal is overrated.
And underrated? Actually, despite hip hop’s current grip on our musical consciousness, there was a time when it was underground – and seemed to have little hope of breaking into the mainstream. Classic albums like Nas’ “It Was Written” from 1996 didn’t make much of an impact in Sweden. Today, rap and hip hop are everywhere.
You have one track to make someone love music. What do you play them?
The Motown-era produced track after track of music that is impossible not to love. I’m talking about artists like Stevie Wonder, and groups like The Four Tops and The Miracles. Lots of horns, and an energising backbeat, usually with rich harmonies. Motown also broke down racial boundaries in the States in the ‘60s.
So, I’m choosing a Motown track from that era, The Temptations “My Girl”. This is pop music in its purest form. So much emotion, but so simple – although it builds really cleverly as the song goes on, and the harmonies are perfect. “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day…”
Wait. Then there’s Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Girl”. Can I have two?
Describe this mix in just one sentence.
This is the music that has soundtracked some of my favourite moments in cinema.
What mood should your mix put the listener in?
Somber. Uplifting. Calm. It varies from track to track.
Where would be the perfect place to listen to this mix? Why?
An empty movie theatre. Box of popcorn. Soda, or make that a Nectar juice. Just soaking in the sounds and visuals.
Tell us about the ten tracks you’ve chosen.
First up is the orchestral “Now We Are Free Super Theme Song” from Gladiator. The song feels so epic and hopeful, but it has a sense of peace and calm too. It’s by Hanz Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard. She sings in this invented language – she calls it idioglossia. It makes sense somehow. It’s a powerful, slow building start to the mix.
We stay with epic movie theme tunes, but switch to the American wild west. Ennio Morricone is rightly regarded as the greatest living composer. Listen to his The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly for proof. It’s another “Spaghetti Western” – a term they used to because of the Italian influence on the genre. The films always feature cunning characters, who betray each other, and then have tense face-offs.
You can hear the suspense in “Man With A Harmonica Theme” from Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s sweeping and dramatic, and because of soundtracks like this the harmonica has become so connected in my mind to barren expanses of desert.
We continue with another classic. “Bullitt Main Title” by Lalo Schifrin. We leave the expanse of desert behind for San Francisco and this pulsing, jazzy track. And we stay with movie classics with “The Godfather Theme Tune”, which is actually the instrumental of “Speak Softly Love” by Nino Rota. The instrumental version strips away the jaunty lyrics to leave the winding violin line and sweeping strings.
After that we have College & Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” from the Drive soundtrack. It’s so powerful and nostalgic that it convinces you that Ryan Gosling’s character is a pure-hearted soul (despite everything he’s done). That’s the power of music, and the power of a good soundtrack.
Next we get a bit schmaltzy, but I don’t care. This is “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” by B.J. Thomas for the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But in case we lightened the mood too much, we darken it again with Terminator 2’s “Judgement Day Theme”.
I was tempted to go for “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti – the classic Rocky theme tune. But I’m choosing “No Easy Way Out” from Rocky IV. There’s the heavy bassline and 80s power chords. Rocky’s former enemy and erstwhile friend, Apollo Creed, is dead. Rocky is haunted by flashbacks of the fight with Drago as he races off in his car – maybe the ultimate driving-through-the-night track.
Then we have Ben E King’s “Stand By Me” from the coming-of-age movie starring River Phoenix and Will Wheaton. The track from 1961 has been recorded over 400 times by people like John Lennon, but you can’t beat the original. It’s so simple. So raw. So heartfelt.
And we ride out with some rap. Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It (Uncensored)” from the Next Friday soundtrack.
Photos by Nam Tran Duy