Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung portray formidable heroines in Johnnie To’s cult action film, The Heroic Trio (1993).

Life Without Principle (2011): Denise Ho stars as a struggling investment clerk in To’s trenchant study of contemporary economic crisis.

By the turn of the century, indie features such as Vincent Chui’s Leaving in Sorrow (2001) exploited the resources of synchronized sound recording.

Simon Yam as arch-pickpocket Kei in Sparrow (2008). At the start of the film, Yam’s singing voice was dubbed by Johnnie To himself.

Voice dubbing at the Milkyway Image studio.

A relatively early Milkyway venture, Running Out of Time (1999) adopted the industry custom of direct sound recording.

Johnny Hallyday in Vengeance (2009): the French singer’s packed schedule led Johnnie To to revert to sync-sound methods.

Martin Chappell (left) at work in the Milkyway premises, with Hong Kong actor Jason Tobin.

In hospital comedy Help!!! (2000), wild youth Jordan Chan…

…is improbably employed as a hospital surgeon. The film’s zany sound track bore witness to Hong Kong’s straitened postproduction schedules.

Sound designer Martin Chappell experimented with new technologies during the making of Soi Cheang’s Dog Bite Dog (2006), a febrile crime thriller starring Edison Chen.

Sparrow: Chappell blends foley (rainfall and beeping traffic signals) with music score. “I always felt that the sound effects were coming from the same speakers [as the music] and together they should be seamless,” Chappell notes.


Sounds of Hong Kong cinema:
Johnnie To, Milkyway Image,
and the sound track

by Gary Bettinson

When critics describe Hong Kong director Johnnie To Kei-fung as a cinematic stylist, the notion of style is usually limited to a predominantly visual expression of technique. Critics agree that To’s best-known films—from The Heroic Trio / Dung fong saam hap (1993) to Life Without Principle / Dyut meng gam (2011)—are distinguished by a pictorial cogency rare in contemporary cinema. However, much less attention has been afforded To’s stylistic engagement with film sound. Insofar as the soundscape has been discussed at all, typically only one acoustic parameter—the music score—has received critical attention.[1][open endnotes in new window] Yet To’s films display a richly inventive use of sonic material, demonstrating a stylistic preoccupation that extends far beyond visual concerns. Indeed, the films derive a good measure of their distinctiveness from the director’s strategies of sound design. In what follows, I attempt to clarify this neglected aspect of To’s work. This essay lays out the practices of sound design employed by To’s production company, Milkyway Image,[2] and situates these practices within the broad historical context of sound production in the Hong Kong film industry.

This essay confines its film analyses chiefly to Johnnie To’s Milkyway output, and to his collaboration with the studio’s head sound designer, Martin Chappell. Most of the films to have earned To the status of auteur carry Chappell’s contribution. Operating on the assumption that we can illuminate a film’s aesthetic strategies by considering its context of production, this essay details the working situation and practices at Milkyway’s sound studio. It goes on to trace the effects of the studio’s work routines upon To’s practical application of film sound. Attendant to these concerns is an attempt to identify not only the salient aural traits and tendencies in To’s work, but also the ways that such stylistic characteristics shape the spectator’s experience. Most broadly, I try to sketch To’s cinema in relation to the large-scale vicissitudes of sound practice within recent Hong Kong cinema. A consideration of these shifting practices will provide our point of departure.

Film sound in Hong Kong after 1960

Until the late 1960s, most Hong Kong films employed synchronized sound.[3] Thereafter, postproduction sound became consolidated as the industry norm, holding sway for nearly forty years. The prime incentives for the late-1960s shift to postsynching are predictable: postproduction sound expended less time and money than did direct sound recording.[4] But postproduction sound brought other advantages as well. Adding sound in postproduction granted the filmmaker greater command of the acoustic space. Sync-sound recording, by contrast, invariably registered unwanted extraneous noise, unavoidable in the colony’s teeming districts. Even relatively controllable zones such as the studio sound stage could harbor fugitive noises, blighting ambient effects or muffling dialogue. Laying in sound at the postproduction stage admitted fewer sonic gremlins, and enabled a more nuanced maintenance of ambient noise and effects.

In addition, the dubbing of character dialogue could lend flexibility to story particulars. Given that Hong Kong directors would often shoot scenes without a detailed script, post-dubbing could facilitate late revisions to story and character.[5] Postsynchronization also camouflaged dialect disparities. Cast ensembles would frequently consist of a pan-Asian troupe of players, prima facie thwarting the possibility of monolingual voice tracks. Dubbing by voice artists eliminated major contrasts in dialect, accent, and language, and tethered all dialogue to a common tongue (Mandarin or Cantonese). Furthermore, dubbing eased the demands heaped on onscreen players. Swordplay and kung-fu stars, and players in slapstick comedy, could execute headlong choreography without having to simultaneously recall and recite dialogue. Lastly, postproduction sound could be taken as an extension of existing routines, since Hong Kong films were already standardly dubbed into dialects such as Mandarin, custom-fit for release in neighboring markets. Now postsynching would encompass not only the dialogue track, but the soundscape in toto. This constellation of factors promoted postsync sound as a primary option, relegating the use of direct sound. Though sync sound did not wholly disappear from Hong Kong cinema, mainstream films employed it sparingly.

Postsynchronized sound yielded certain byproducts, not all of them anticipated by filmmakers. Consider as an example two characters conversing. To simplify the looping process, the onscreen players would tend to perform lip movements in turn-taking succession, alternating speech systematically. Sometimes visual tactics reinforced the back-and-forth interplay, as when shot/reverse-shots were cued to each speaker’s stretch of dialogue. These tendencies amplified the action’s expressive clarity, but they also yielded a dearth of dialogue overlaps. Consequently, the sort of dense vocal interweaving forged in Hollywood cinema by directors such as Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Robert Altman was seldom exploited by Hong Kong artisans, and the dialogue overlap remains a scarcely mined device in the local cinema. Inadvertently, then, Hong Kong’s preference for postproduction dubbing (or automated dialogue replacement[ADR]) tended to eliminate certain stylistic options, leaving some fertile resources of sound untapped.  

Also corollary to postsynching was a notorious stylemark of Hong Kong cinema—the frequent disparity between the actor’s lip movements and the dubbed voice. Constrained by time pressure, editors were resigned to synchronic imperfections. Dialogue conceived in postproduction would sit awkwardly on the onscreen player’s lips. Voice doublers would struggle to emulate the expressive timbre of the original actors’ performance. Until the early 1970s, Hong Kong films were dubbed in Mandarin dialect even for local exhibition, and this practice inevitably multiplied mismatches of sound and image.[6] But the asynchrony was still more flagrant in audiovisual tracks prepared for English-speaking markets. Today, as in the 1980s and 1990s, English dubbing is executed in Hong Kong by coteries of voice actors, again operating under pressure of the clock. The results, often technically crude, lay bare the device of postsynchronized sound editing. They also call attention to the sound track’s third-party mediation. So notorious is this aspect of Asian films generally that it has become fodder for popular comic parody in the West, notable examples including What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Police Academy (1984), Wayne’s World 2 (1993), and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002). Further, critic Gary Needham observes that English-dubbed exports of Chinese martial-arts films invariably reworked the original sound mix, sacrificing overall intricacy and nuance for a hyperbolic stress on spectacular sound effects.[7] Yet these coarse mediations—slapdash synchrony and overdetermined cracks, thuds, and whooshes—perversely supercharged the appeal of Hong Kong cinema in the West, holding particular allure for fan subcultures prizing “trash” aesthetics.

Most broadly, the two main outgrowths of postsynching—the absence of overlapping dialogue; the skewed synchronization of body and voice—produced in the local cinema deficits of realism. Yet the prospects of sync sound for the realist style could be glimpsed in Hong Kong’s independent sector, which had sporadically preserved the local tradition of direct sound recording, chiefly out of economic necessity. In the 1990s and early 2000s, independent directors such as Fruit Chan and Vincent Chui embraced the realistic defects and vagaries of direct location sound, turning production constraints to expressive advantage. Exemplified by Chan’s Made in Hong Kong / Xiang Gang zhi zao (1997) and Chui’s Leaving in Sorrow / Youyou chouchou de zou le (2001), the indie feature displayed the dialogue overlaps, polyphonic clutter, and other markers of realism absent from the postsynched studio film. It also anticipated the Hong Kong industry’s more widespread assimilation of sync-sound methods at the end of the decade. Thus sync sound did not vanish after 1960 but, instead, became a minority practice, the province of a few directors operating outside or astride the mainstream industry. Fresh from television, for instance, New Wave director Allen Fong appropriated that industry’s sync-sound techniques, absorbing the device into a broadly neorealist project.[8] (Most television-trained New Wave directors neglected to import direct sound into the local cinema, which, for some local critics, compromised the New Wave cinema’s claims to realism.[9]) Though studio directors occasionally flirted with direct sound, the mainstream industry prioritized bold schematic expressivity over veristic concerns. 

For the most part, this priority remains intact today. But as the 1990s wore on, some Hong Kong directors openly disdained postsynchronization, arguing that it truncated the actor’s performance. At the end of the decade, director Gordon Chan complained:

“with the dubbing process … you are approaching your film after the fact and you invariably lose something. The effects don’t measure up. Normally, we only use one single track and one actor—the one responsible for his own voice—in the dubbing room. So you lack a feeling of contact and communication and you lose the atmospherics of synch-sound.”[10]

Chan’s lament echoed the industry’s general disillusionment with postsync sound. Apart from the aesthetic and practical advantages its rival offered, a set of influences coalesced in the 1990s that would usher synchronized sound back into currency.

By the late 1990s synchronized sound recording in Hong Kong became more or less standardized once more. What pressures led to the renovation of this deep-grained practice? A key incentive was the ensemble of setbacks that plagued local filmmaking in the 1990s—the stifling of domestic product by Hollywood films, an outsourcing of local talent to American studios, a crippling regional upsurge in DVD piracy, and the financial crisis that mushroomed throughout Asia, all of which squeezed production output and reduced attendance for Hong Kong films. To compete internationally, Hong Kong studios ramped up production values. Sync sound was considered a marker of quality and brought local sound recording into alignment with Hollywood practice. Embracing Hollywood techniques, the Hong Kong film could challenge U.S. imports for domestic attention. Furthermore, the old rationale for postsynching had grown outdated. Previously, looped speech was required to furnish all dialogue in a common dialect, but now the Hong Kong film flaunted its mix of languages and dialects, the better to inveigle its international sources of funding. Also waning was the custom of adding last-minute dialogue far into the dubbing stage. Now studios advocated the preproduction screenplay, making the completed script a prerequisite for shooting—a principle that emulated Mainland coproduction practices. In sum, the deepening crisis of the 1990s stimulated the industry’s adaptivity and resourcefulness. By turning to direct sound as one practical option, Hong Kong filmmakers revived sound practices largely abandoned in the 1960s.

Into this context came the Milkyway production house, founded by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai in 1996. Following industry trends, director To adopted sync-sound as a primary resource. Apart from its rewards of quality and authenticity, this technique was popular with To’s actors who preferred organic, on-set performance to the dubbing booth. As the local industry deteriorated, however, To grew less inclined to embrace its production methods. By the time of Running on Karma / Daai zek lou (Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, 2003), he had reverted almost wholly to postproduction sound practices, retrofitting the acoustic track to a working assembly of footage. With this shift, he acted firmly against the prevailing sound techniques of the day.

Today, To still favors postsynchronized sound methods, and ADR is a staple resource. Dialogue is seldom recorded during shooting, so any script deviations are monitored on set by a script supervisor (usually clutching an MP3 recorder). Though location sound is recorded separately, To and sound designer Martin Chappell strive to record ambiences at the shooting locale, the better to create a credible milieu. Speed and economy govern the dubbing phase. If the original actor is not at hand, To enlists Milkyway staff as voice doublers. (Johnnie To himself took on modest dubbing duties for Sparrow / Man jeuk[Johnnie To, 2008].) Veristic concerns shape the dubbing process too. A player’s regional accent may be deemed incongruous with the story milieu, whereupon a local doubler is enlisted to preserve verisimilitude. For Hong Kong audiences, dialect disparities prove a greater distraction than does the device of voice dubbing. As a result, Mandarin actors whose Cantonese is heavily accented (or lacks fluency) will often find their voice displaced by indigenous Hong Kong doublers. (Soi Cheang, one of Milkyway’s rising directors, dubbed all of Mandarin actor Andy On’s dialogue in Mad Detective / Sun taam [Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, 2007].) The final part of the dubbing phase involves assembling a Mandarin track for Mainland distribution, a routine applied to all theatrical releases out of the Milkyway studio.

Not merely dialogue but sound en bloc coalesces in postproduction. By favoring postsync sound To forfeits synchronized field recording, but the payoff is total command of the acoustic space. For To, postsync sound (unlike direct sound) renders the soundscape a controllable parameter of style, much as camera movement, shot design, and editing are governable devices of visual expression. Here, then, is a major source of the postsync device’s appeal for To. Since postsync sounds can be crafted, textured, meshed, and patterned, To is able to exercise a degree of autonomy—and to achieve a level of sonic precision—comparable to his mastery of visual style. In addition, postsynching eliminates the task of winnowing out extraneous noise. Synched features such as Running Out of Time / Am zin (Johnnie To, 1999) show up ambient impurities, but in subsequent films To and Chappell achieve crisp levels of silence. More important, the practice of postsynching meshes neatly with one of To’s distinctive strengths: his propensity to conceive action in predominantly visual terms. Without the resource of direct sound recording, the director explores ways to enliven the scene visually. Pictorial concerns become uppermost, relegating “dialogue and static conversation scenes” to lesser status.[11] Thanks to the postsync method, To’s visual facility has found rich expression, while the demotion of dialogue lubricates his films’ circulation in foreign markets.

Though production routines get standardized, no Hong Kong director follows an unbending set of practices. Constraints oblige the Hong Kong filmmaker to embrace adaptability, which sometimes entails surrendering work habits to exigent circumstances. As a primary option, To champions postproduction sound, but various pressures may push sync-sound into contention. Often such pressures stem from practical concerns. Director To shot most of Vengeance / Fuk sau (Johnnie To, 2009) using direct sound, chiefly in order to facilitate lead actor Johnny Hallyday’s schedule. At other times, a creative impetus governs the uptake of sync sound. To’s players are occasionally instructed to elaborate scripted scenes, enlarging or fine-tuning story events, and the ensuing on-set improvisation is committed to record. In such circumstances, the rough assembly presented to the sound editor consists only of sporadic knots of live sound, and otherwise bears testimony to the silent action inscribed in the image.

I will presently consider the creative treatment of sound in To’s aesthetic—the forging and molding of acoustic cues designed to convey narrative information, carry thematic meanings, and elicit particular responses. Before we study the films, however, it will be useful to alight on some broad contextual norms governing sound production at Milkyway Image. What are the routine procedures and practices of the studio’s sound department? What technologies are employed? How are the work roles distributed? How is the collaboration between To and Chappell defined? Most local creativity emerges from heavy constraints, but the Milkyway production house displays remarkable efficiency even by Hong Kong cinema’s streamlined standards.

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