"I think that when we are outside of the system, and when we're drowning, all we're thinking about is swimming and succeeding in it." This quote from comedian and director Julio Torres to the Huffington Post encapsulates the tragically absurd reality depicted in their directorial debut Problemista - a fabulist semi-autobiographical narrative that lifts the veil on the Kafkaesque plight endured by countless souls adrift in America's cavernous immigration labyrinth. Robert Ouyang Rusli scores this with avant-garde flair.
In Problemista, a film released today under A24 distribution and starring Tilda Swinton and RZA alongside the director, Torres' surreal and absurdist story explores themes of immigration, identity, and life under late-stage capitalism through the lens of a struggling toymaker named Alejandro. It is an absurdist, almost phantasmagoric saga where the dehumanising malaise of late-capitalist alienation reigns.
To sonically inhabit this alternately whimsical and disquieting universe is no simple task; It would necessitate a composer finely attuned to Torres’ vision, possessing a deft emotional aural palate capable of delicately balancing humour with the somber truths that lie beneath: Robert Ouyang Rusli. The Brooklyn-based composer has already made waves in recent years both with their impressive resume of film scoring and their daring, genre-blending musical project OHYUNG. Their latest achievement, crafted through an 98 minute runtime, is an innovative orchestral tapestry synthesising influences from Balkan choirs to 1970s synthesisers to orchestral minimalism. The score is a unique aural cosmology that transports listeners into Problemista's dream-like exploration of immigration, identity, and the dehumanising alienation inherent to modern capitalism. With unconventional vocal stylings, surrealistic track titles, and contributions from experimental titans like Randall Dunn of Sunn O))), Rusli's compositional voyage resonates as both an exaltation of personal truth and a sardonic rejoinder to soulless bureaucratic systems.
Problemista unfolds against the backdrop of New York City, a sprawling metropolis that pulsates with its own unique rhythm and energy. Rusli's states that the story is "so specific to New York", and thus for Rusli, a Brooklyn-based artist immersed in the city's vibrant artistic community, crafting the score for Problemista is a natural fit. Their intimate knowledge of New York's art scene, coupled with both personal and vicious experiences navigating its complexities imbue the music with a sense of authenticity and resonance, elevating the film's narrative and amplifying its emotional impact. With respect to Alcia Keys’ romantic idealisation of New York as a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”, I imagine most civilians with significant real-life experience with the city would view the Big Apple as a place where dreams are near-actualised and then shattered at a pace more devastating than most. Rusli's score serves as a haunting and evocative soundtrack to the human drama unfolding against the backdrop of the New York urban wilderness.
Congratulations on creating such a masterful score! The synthesis of bubbling whimsy and propulsive minimalism creates a trance-like, ritualistic ambience. Describe for us this sonic cosmology you fashioned to entrance viewers into Problemista's universe.
Thank you! I love taking sounds from completely different genres and combining them in strange ways to create something new. For Problemista I was playing with ideas of balkan choir, ritualistic chant, 70s and 80s synthesisers, orchestral minimalism, and probably a few others I’m blanking on right now, and combining them into something new. Because the world of Problemista is so surreal and strange, it gave me so much room to play.
You underwent a metamorphosis over 2022, professing to have "thrown everything" into this magnum opus. Recount for us this rapturous process of creative transfiguration as you rebirthed yourself into Problemista's score.
I’m glad you appreciate the score, yes I did put a lot of myself into the making of this score. Really, some of the main reasons are I’m a huge fan of both Julio, Tilda, and RZA, and I absolutely adored the script and just wanted to do the film justice. Also I think Julio created such a beautiful and open world for me to play in, that it let me be my best, most creative self. In the film, the main character Alejandro has a vivid imagination and envisions every problem he faces with its own world (i.e. an endless warehouse of hourglasses representing everyone who needs a visa to stay in the country, a labyrinth of cubicles representing the catch-22 of laws preventing him from getting a visa, fighting a three-headed hydra in a cave when arguing with someone difficult), so Julio and I thought the score could act to amplify the stakes of the film with a choir, or sound effects of bombs exploding, or wailing voices– the creativity and freedom to use any sound under the sun, and feeling enabled to create with no rules made for a really eclectic score.
The choir throughout the score, particularly in tracks such as Hydra and Hasbro Confrontation, seems to embody a transcendent, spectral presence chanting in a vocal glossolalia of splintered desires. Talk about this dimension and how it sonifies the liberating dissidence at the film's core.
I had an idea early on to invent a language for our choir to sing that was fragmented syllables of words that represented each character’s deepest desires and fears. So when people listen, it sounds like gibberish, but every so often the syllables align in a way where certain words are recognisable. So the choir acted as a greek chorus that essentially cheers on each character on their journeys through the film!
Many of the Problemista score track titles like Smart Phones for Cabbage Patch Kids, Do You Know Filemaker Pro? and Cleaning Boy Kink exude such a hilariously off-kilter spirit. It feels like you certainly leaned into the film's idiosyncratic, absurdist sensibilities when deciding on these imaginative names. Can you discuss the inspirations and thought process behind creating the roster of titles? How much fun did you have in using the evocative track names themselves as a way to tap into and amplify the surreal, fairytale-like essence of Julio Torres' vision?
Oh a lot of these titles are just lines from the film! Julio did all the heavy lifting, I just took phrases from scenes in the film the music is playing and used them for titles.
Heavyweights from NYC's avant-garde scene like Randall Dunn of Sunn O))) and yuniya edi kwon all contributed to this score. What was it like working in conjunction with such titans of the unconventional? How did these collaborators shape the score's experimental sensibilities?
This film is so specific to New York, especially New York artists, that it was important for me to work 100% with New York musicians. I was also worried that working with people who weren't oddballs might not understand my vision for the score. So early on I reached out to Randall Dunn and his team at Circular Ruin, who mixed and produced scores for really out there scores like Mandy and Candyman, with the hopes that he would understand the score. And it turned out we had a lot of music community in common, and ended up assembling a super team of talented New York musicians, handpicking a choir and string ensemble and percussionist. Synthesisers play a huge part in this score too, and I knew Randall had a lot of synth experience, so he did a wonderful job helping with the synths.
As an Asian-American Brooklyn based queer artist refuting mainstream corporatism, did scoring the immigrant experience and pursuit of the American Dream within the New York art context depicted in Problemista feel like a personally cathartic journey of exploring and reclaiming your own identity?
Alejandro’s experience in this film is not my experience, but I would say I know or have met every character in this film in my past 14 years living in New York. And after reading the script I felt like I had to be the one to score this film!
We've seen much of Hollywood's blockbuster musical industrial complex become increasingly dominated by soulless, market-driven formulae, catering to simplistic mass consumption and heteronormativity. However, this film’s use of absurdism and allegorical storytelling to rejoinder against bureaucratic alienation and the existential tolls of late-capitalist malaise could be seen as a koanic fable to jolt the viewer into a deep contemplation on the failures inherent in the modern American system. Did you approach this score with a similar sense of emancipation against such hegemonic cultural forces? How far did scoring this anti-capitalist A24 indie allow you to repudiate such cisheteronormative norms?
Hell yeah I did! Super far.
Your OHYUNG albums seem to run the gamut from expertly confrontational cross-genre explosions (GODLESS) to more ambient meditations (imagine naked!), and there is a remarkable thematic depth across the OHYUNG catalogue - grappling with identity self-critique, gender, and more. Songs like shenme gui and ga ga ee from your PROTECTOR LP further interrogate ideas of cross-cultural longing, ancestral connection, and the diasporic experience. Do you see your film scoring as a reflexive extension of this personal storytelling through sound or as more of a separate artistic plane?
I used to try really hard to separate the two but nowadays my personal music and film scoring often cross paths. The two practices are always informing each other. This has probably come from therapy and accepting myself for who I am.
As both queer and non-white artists, I am curious to know what it like working so closely with Julio Torres within the context of your potential shared experiences. How far did intersecting queer identities and lived experiences shape the aural universe you constructed for Problemista? Were there specific sensibilities or creative synergies that emerged from you both approaching this profoundly personal story from an authentic queer lens?
I think what you’re referencing shapes all kinds of things in the tiniest of ways, mostly in ways you can’t necessarily name but can feel. Problemista is a film that doesn’t explicably name queerness, but somehow is just felt through every bone in its body. I don’t know, we just vibed!
Looking back on some of your previous film score works, I noticed your proclivity for working with new ambitious filmmakers; Shatara Michelle Ford's Test Pattern (2019), Miles Warren's Bruiser (2022), and now Julio Torres' Problemista were the all the directors' debut feature films. As a composer, what unique opportunities or creative benefits do you find when collaborating with bold new filmmaking voices on their ambitious first features? Compared to potentially more established directors with set methods, how did the first-time feature contexts for Test Pattern, Bruiser and Problemista enable you to help shape the tonal identities and atmospheres in a more malleable way through the music?
I’ve been lucky that all the filmmakers I work with who are first-time feature directors are immensely talented and I believe in their ideas. But part of the reason i haven’t worked with directors further into their career are because directors are like Pokemon trainers, once they find people they like to work with they put them in their Pokeballs and take them with them! Everyone wants to work with people they trust.
As a lover of adventurous cinema yourself, do you have a Letterboxd top 4 favourite films selection? Have any of those works inspired or resonated with your own artistic vision and approach, both musically and thematically?
I have a secret and tragically unorganised Letterboxd, and until your question I completely forgot you can add a top 4. Off the top of my head right now I would list Lust, Caution by Ang Lee, Birth by Jonathan Glazer, Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, and Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. And everything I watch inspires everything I make!
Now that it's released, what about this overwhelming yet ecstatic creative journey with Problemista has most invigorated your artistic drive going forward? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
Problemista was a super challenging and fun score, and now being on the other side of it I have a lot more confidence and I’m excited to challenge myself in other ways. I’ve worked with Julio on another project that’s coming out later this year, and a few beautiful smaller indie films that I’m really excited about.
In that 2021 Harvard Crimson interview, you discussed your studies of Wagner's innovative use of leitmotifs - distinct musical cues and melodies tied to specific characters, emotions, or narrative elements. Given the fantastical, surreal world of Julio Torres' Problemista with its set of idiosyncratic personalities, to what extent did you aim to develop a similar leitmotif system? Were there signature musical representations you composed for figures like the aspiring toymaker Alejandro, the tempestuous art critic Elizabeth, or even more abstract ideas like immigration bureaucracy or metamorphic identity?
Every character and abstract idea has a theme in this score! They all mix and swirl in a hundred ways throughout the film. If you rewatch the film multiple times and listen to the music as certain things are happening I promise you’ll catch them.
Are there any exciting up-and-coming composers that you have felt particularly inspired by through the creating of this work that you would like to shout out?
I’m inspired by a lot of the musicians who I brought in to contribute their many talents to the score: yuniya edi kwon, Holland Andrews, Randall Dunn, and my former roommate Matt Evans who is an amazing composer and lived with me while I scored this film, I feel like part of his spirit is in this score.
Finally, I have to say I am a massive fan of the Kirby purse you brought to SXSW last year! Will the purse be making a reappearance at the festival this year?
I borrowed the SXSW Kirbs from my friend Clae! Kirbs has returned to Clae but they gave me a different Kirby purse, so I might bring that one to one if I end up going to a festival.