Kinki (Sammi Cheng) and Andy (Andy Lau) contemplate office romance in Needing You… (2000).

Needing You…: Handsome biker Roger (Raymond Wong) vies for Kinki’s affections. ...

Johnnie To directed the final segment of Triangle (2007), employing Milkyway repertory players.

PTU: Music dominates sound effects as the PTU officers charge forward.

Linger (2008): When Yan (Li Bing Bing) witnesses a traffic accident, her racing heartbeat registers prominently on the sound track.

Linger (2008): At the hospital, a cardiograph elaborates the rhythmic beat motif.

Linger (2008): Searching for sleeping pills, Yan is startled by an offscreen noise. ...

... A reverse shot reveals the specter of Dong (Vic Chou).

At the climax of China coproduction Drug War (2012), Louis Koo is cuffed to the arm of Mainland actor Sun Hong-Lei.

Johnnie To embraced Mainland coproduction with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011)…

…a return to the popular “office romance” genre.


Anticipatory cuing finds further expression in romantic comedy Needing You… / Goo naam gwa neui (Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, 2000). Lonely office worker Kinki (Sammi Cheng) misplaces her lucky amulet, a charm purported to improve its owner’s romantic fortunes. Later, Kinki’s boss Andy (Andy Lau) finds the amulet stuck to the heel of his shoe. As he climbs into his car, Andy casts the amulet on the wind but fails to notice the object being swept back into his car by a freak breeze. A twinkly music cue underscores the amulet’s improbable path, hinting at an act of fate. Still later, Andy discovers the object in his vehicle’s back seat, and again hurls it from his car. Now, as the object zips back into the vehicle, the sound track comically conveys and accents its insistent trajectory by means of a brief motorcycle “vroom.” This acoustic cue is both noticeable and subtle; though its incongruity generates humor, it is undercut and partly disguised by the ignition of Andy’s car engine, as he prepares to speed away. On the face of it, the incongruous motorcycle noise finds its raison d’etre in its creation of comic effect. But in Chappell and To’s hands, it presages a strand of plot action yet to emerge.

As he climbs into his car, Andy spots something in the footwell. ... ... He finds the magical amulet stuck to his shoe…
…and hurls it from the vehicle. ... ... Later, Andy discovers the amulet in the back seat of his car. ...

... The persistent pendant is underscored by the growl of a motorcycle engine.


As Andy comes to realize that he is attracted to Kinki, a love rival appears in the form of Roger (Raymond Wong), a seductive young biker whose motorcycle impresses the lovelorn woman. In a futile effort to compete, Andy decides to buy a motorcycle of his own. The amulet and the motorcycle, linked acoustically earlier in the film, now become explicitly interlinked: as we hear Andy instructing a bewildered assistant to find him a motorcycle, Johnnie To’s camera lingers on a close-up of the amulet. The following elliptical cut presents sensuous close-ups of Andy’s new machine. (As Andy mounts the vehicle, To self-consciously alludes to Lau’s heroic motorcyclist in A Moment of Romance / Tin joek jau cing (1990)—a hit movie produced by To. He then tartly punctures the allusion, as Andy, without having put the vehicle in motion, crashes to the ground.) Both the amulet and motorcycle motifs are crucial to the climactic romantic union. Reconciled with his car, Andy races to prevent Kinki from marrying Roger. When his car splutters to a halt, Andy clutches the lucky amulet in desperation. As if by divination, a mysterious motorcyclist arrives and offers Andy a ride, preparing the way for the anticipated romantic closure (and cuing another pungent reference to A Moment of Romance).

... Once again, Andy is assailed by the amulet. ... .… Johnnie To links the amulet and motorcycle motifs both sonically and with a visual cut…
…to Andy’s new motorcycle. ... A mysterious motorcyclist comes to Andy’s aid.

Here again the aesthetic of acoustic foreshadowing is given full play. The first appearance of the incongruous motorcycle noise adumbrates, in oblique but meaningful fashion, a major plotline to come. At the same time, meshing these two motifs is an entirely apt postsynching maneuver. Both the amulet and the motorcycle become inextricably linked as the narrative develops, integrally advancing the romance plot. As in our previous examples, the sound track of Needing You… comes forward as a communicative narrational device. It tacitly prepares forthcoming action (nothing narratively or visually augurs the motorcycle motif until Roger first enters the action) and hints at imbricated motifs that will resolve the fate-driven plot. The practice of anticipatory cueing at once bolsters formal unity and enriches narrative motifs.

Implicit in the foregoing examples is the primacy of the overall artwork. Though Chappell prepares sounds reel-by-reel, he subsumes discrete cues to the total narrative and visual structure. Sounds resurface across the entire film. They look forward to impending action. Chappell and To’s proclivity for anticipatory sound reflects this concern with the global story canvas. Moreover, such anticipatory tactics may plausibly be traced to the practice of large-scale postsynching. Presented with a more or less complete suite of images, the sound designer can map sonic effects across the entire composition of the work. This advantage is harder to obtain through direct sound recording alone, partly because sync sound does not deliver noises that are naturally strategic and patterned.[37] [open endnotes in new window] Sync-sound films are also more likely to deploy music rather than sound effects to pattern the acoustic field, rolling out leitmotifs in lieu of non-musical sounds. By contrast, To and Chappell can plant and pattern sounds that range across the whole structure, thereby augmenting the film’s formal integrity.[38] Moreover, their anticipatory cues reward repeat audio-viewings, since these cues’ communicative function becomes evident only in retrospect. Like To’s multifaceted visual tactics, his films’ sound tracks reveal their intricacies progressively upon repeat exposure.

Turn Left, Turn Right: John (Takeshi Kaneshiro) admits Ruby into his apartment. ... ... Ruby (Terri Kwan) grows curious when John obsesses over a crumpled leaf of paper. ...
... In the adjacent apartment, Ruby’s curiosity deepens… …as she spots a similar scrap of paper. ...
... Ruby slams the door as she leaves John’s apartment, and the noise transmutes into a thunder tremble.  

We have seen that To and Chappell utilize a sonic maneuver, the tacit anticipatory cue, for a variety of ends—to evoke humor, presage plot twists, and amplify motifs. This principle emerges as a recurrent acoustic trait in To’s films with Chappell. A kindred tendency is equally distinctive. Here individual chunks of sound (as distinct from a strategic use of sound) are mined for a range of denotative, thematic, and expressive effects. Consider this characteristic example. Partway through Turn Left, Turn Right, a fast-food waitress named Ruby (Terri Kwan) delivers a meal to a downtown apartment occupied by a new customer, John (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Instantly Ruby is smitten with John. She notices his preoccupation with a slip of paper, on which is scrawled an illegible telephone number. Reluctantly parting from John, Ruby calls at a neighboring apartment where she encounters Eve (Gigi Leung) and spots a scrap of paper similar to the one in John’s apartment. A facial close-up signals that Ruby fathoms the situation—John and Eve, unaware that they share an apartment block, are romantic agents separated by fate. (The bits of paper, exchanged earlier between John and Eve, were ineluctably defaced in a thunderstorm.) Rather than reunite the central protagonists, Ruby conspires to keep them apart and advises Eve to abandon her futile search for John.

The noteworthy use of sound occurs at the hinge of these two encounters. Ruby retreats from John’s apartment, snapping the door shut. Naturalistic sounds of the slamming door bleed into a low thunder rumble, which lacks naturalistic motivation (an exterior establishing shot shows a temperate climate). In addition, the incongruous thunderclap is cut short by an overlapping sound—that of Eve, suffering from flu, coughing infirmly. Chappell and To, therefore, fuse three distinct sounds into a single acoustic cue. What is the significance of this fleeting yet distinctive block of sounds? As often in To’s films, the solitary cue is assigned a host of tasks. Most basically, it is pressed into denotative service, designating the clunk of the door. More thematically expressive is the pregnant thunder tremble sandwiched at the heart of the three-part cue. In foregoing scenes, To establishes the thunderclap as a repeated diegetic trope, connoting the kismet that misdirects the protagonists’ trajectories. This acoustic cue thereby serves a motivic and thematic function, elaborating a sonic device woven into other phases of the film.[39]  

Then there is a commentative function. The thunderclap animates the pathetic fallacy, portending the dramatic tumult that Ruby will produce in the fate of the romantic protagonists. (This aural cue thus also serves as an anticipatory device, priming impending action.) Metaphorical use of inclement weather is a staple of melodrama, but To undercuts this generic cliché by introducing a sonic non sequitur. By adding Eve’s cough into the welter, the narration defuses a timeworn device and furnishes a neat sonic segue between scenes. Moreover, it creates acoustic linkage between the characters, hinting at their impending entanglement. Tethered to Ruby, the malignant low rumble converges with vocal sounds produced by Eve, whose future happiness the waitress jeopardizes. The brevity of this cue ensures that it works upon our attention in unobtrusive fashion. Yet, on closer inspection, it is laden with an array of meanings that shapes the viewer’s uptake in numerous ways. From the tabula rasa of postsync invention, To and Chappell sculpt an isolated sound cue and invest it with manifold significance.

Two tendencies in this sequence are worth highlighting, since they constitute enduring sonic principles in To’s aesthetic program. First is To’s fondness for the hybrid cue, a discrete sonic chunk comprised of two or more sounds. In Turn Left, Turn Right, the deep throb of an open refrigerator merges into the quavering thunder motif. Later, pigeon coos dovetail into a telephone’s insistent ringtone. Triangle / Tie saam gok (Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, 2007) dissolves a thunderclap into a tyre blowout. In such cases, a solitary cue harbors a range of expressive meanings and affective functions.[40] Apart from composite cues, there is the single cue patterned and transformed across the work’s duration. A buzzing alarm clock provides the first diegetic sound we hear in Linger / Hu die fei (Johnnie To, 2008), announcing a thematic and motivic preoccupation with time (echoed in the film’s English title). Thereafter, the motif is sustained by a low-level rhythmic ticking, which in several scenes underscores music and dialogue.[41] Near the climax, a traffic collision leaves the female protagonist distraught, and a subjective rhythmic pulse envelops the surround field. This sound signifies the woman’s psychic distress, but it also elaborates the narration’s unobtrusive ticking motif. In an ensuing hospital scene, the regular beat of a cardiograph further extends and transforms the ticking motif. Undergoing formal and plastic variation, this motivic cue deepens in emotional tone and narrative meaning.

These tendencies may be construed as economical measures arising from constraints. Racing down to the wire, Chappell exigently relies on relatively few sounds and assigns them multiple tasks. By reinstituting an aural cue at various stages of the film, or by assigning several functions to a single cue, he trims the time spent foraging for additional sounds. Yet the techniques we have outlined are not merely expediencies or shortcuts. They require ingenuity. Relying on fewer sound cues may abate time pressure, but it engenders a fresh set of aesthetic challenges. What combination of sounds can be effectively wedded? How best to array a sonic motif across the work’s components or structures? How to harness distinct functions to a solitary acoustic cue? What material and emotional capacities can be extracted from a particular sound? In their solutions to these problems, To and Chappell prioritize the formal integrity of the sound track. Melting sounds into one another creates a more or less continuous stream of sounds. Recycling a cue lends the overall work acoustic continuity and coherence. Chappell has remarked that “if one turns away from the image, the story can still be understood, almost like a radio play.”[42] Without losing sight of its responsiveness to the image, we might note that the soundscape has been constructed—crafted, sculpted, overlaid—as an object of interest in its own right, its internal coherence deriving largely but not wholly from the a priori unity of the image track.

With music, too, the integrity of the sound track is paramount. The spotting process is completed by To before sound editing commences, and though no sound designer would merely fill in the silent interstices, Chappell takes pains to ensure that foley and score intermesh. As we have seen, he frequently recruits postsynched ambient noise to underscore and blend with the spotted music cue. More interestingly, perhaps, sonic integrity reaches its apogee when the traditional functions of effects and music are transposed. We have already noted a tactic in PTU whereby Chappell distends a musical note, ascribing it an ambient function. In the film’s climactic shootout, a band of PTU officers charges toward the camera in slow motion. Here To and Chappell let the music score carry the action’s expressive weight, minimizing the use of foleyed sounds. The anticipated sounds of the diegesis grow conspicuous by their absence. Alternatively Chappell affords ambient noise the expressive salience of music, as when background sounds in The Mission swell in pitch and loudness to intensify a moment of character conflict. Pledged to the integrated soundscape, To and Chappell combine music and effects in purposive ways, steering the spectator’s story uptake and emotional response.

It should be evident that To and Chappell structure the sound track so as to tap the bimodal propensities of the audio-viewer. The acoustic space is organized to arrest attention, shape comprehension, cue expectations, elicit affective responses, and work upon our nonconscious reflexes. From a craft perspective, such effects are consciously-sought phenomena, though the means of achieving these effects may at times depend on fairly unreflective trial-and-error—as Chappell’s concedes, “I think a lot of my work has been quite intuitive.”[43] Walter Murch attests that editors “have to have an intuition about the craft to begin with…As much as possible,[we] try to be the audience.”[44] Storytelling, according to Brian Boyd, demands “rich psychological intuition and invention” from the artist, such that the storyteller becomes an “intuitive psychologist.”[45] Similarly, David Bordwell points out that filmmakers possess tacit, first-hand knowledge of the ways filmic phenomena affect perceivers. Put succinctly, “Not all spectators are filmmakers, but all filmmakers are spectators.”[46] Filmmakers’ reliance on intuitive and procedural knowledge ought not to imply a lack of artisanal skill, for such heuristics depend upon internalized craft practices, intersubjective experience, aesthetic judgments and the like. In more or less deliberative ways, To and Chappell have sought to exploit the biological endowments of the film viewer. Their strategies are wide-ranging, activating both bottom-up (non-conscious, direct) and top-down (concept-driven, complex) processes. At the most basic level of perception are low-level, autonomic reactions, which To and Chappell trigger by means of auditory stimuli. An example already adduced is the amplified rhythmic throb in Linger, which palpably registers the protagonist’s shock amid a road accident. A pronounced rhythm and tempo here work directly upon the spectator’s physiology. In particular, these properties are apt to engage and regulate the spectator’s heartbeat, inducing a so-called auditory “mirror” effect.[47] Triggering an involuntary reflex, the auditory cue works to augment the spectator’s dysphoric experience in relation to a moment of dramatic crisis.[48]   

Linger exploits higher-order perception too. One sonic stratagem relies on the spectator’s working memory (i.e. her conscious mental “workbench”) for deceptive surprise. Ransacking a desk drawer, Yan (Li Bing Bing) searches frantically for a bottle of sleeping pills. She is turned away from camera as a rattling noise surfaces from an offscreen source. Startled by the noise, Yan spins around. A reverse shot reveals the ghost of Dong (Vic Chou) bouncing the bottle in the air. In a subsequent courtroom scene, Yan is perturbed by a male laugh emanating from a zone offscreen. To’s camera pans to show the source of the laugh: Dong. Presenting Dong in disquieting fashion aptly evokes an ambiguous ontology, but both scenes serve also to establish an internal audiovisual norm—Dong will be announced into the action by sonic means; that is, acousmatically (by sound rather than image).[49] With more or less conscious reflection, the spectator stores this narrational pattern in working memory. Following the courtroom action, Yan repairs to the washroom in distress, refreshing her face with water. Abruptly a deep acousmatic voice triggers the startle reflex (an instinctive, bottom-up reaction). Thanks to working memory, the spectator’s bimodal expectations are primed. As previously, the voice is de-acousmatized, but not as the spectator predicts—a reverse shot reveals not Dong, but a female lawyer (Maggie Shiu) striding into view.

Linger (2008): Legal clerk Yan attends the court hearing of Hui Luk Wo (Wong Yau-nam). ... ... Yan, perturbed by noises emanating from off screen, …
… turns around to discover Dong’s apparition in the courtroom. Linger (2008): As she composes herself in the washroom, Yan hears another ominous sound behind her…

…but the figure she faces is a surprise both to her and the viewer.


By establishing and violating an audiovisual norm, To and Chappell solicit inferences, expectations, and other top-down processes. They encourage source misattribution, surprise, and wariness of a misleading narration. And in dramatic terms, To and Chappell deflate a moment of dread—an affective response that stems chiefly from an internally patterned network of sounds. These sonic effects demonstrate a sure-handed grasp of the spectator’s perceptual and cognitive predispositions. Far from presenting a mere facsimile of visual action, To and Chappell’s sound tracks press viewers to execute activities on a spectrum of cognitive complexity.

In the final analysis, Johnnie To’s films stand out against a local filmmaking context striving to emulate Hollywood practices and styles. Unencumbered by location sound crews, they display a freewheeling visual style reminiscent of Hong Kong cinema’s golden era (the 1980s period during which postsynching was standard practice). Virtuosity is no less evident at the level of acoustic style thanks to postsynching practice, production constraints, intuitive heuristics, and artistic ingenuity. A totalizing concept of the sound track also sets To’s cinema apart from indigenous filmmaking customs. Constructing soundscapes ab ovo, from scratch, To and Chappell achieve an integrity of effects, foley, dialogue, and music that few domestic filmmakers have sought to match. For the most part, moreover, To’s sound tracks have remained defiantly local. As Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1990s strove to satisfy overseas investors and seize the global market, they resolved to steep the sound track in miscellaneous dialects and languages. To’s domestic track record and reliance on local funding (including financing from Milkyway Image) allowed him to flout this polyglot trend, at least until the imperatives of PRC coproduction took hold. Like most Hong Kong directors, To has forged Mainland production alliances in recent years (e.g. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart / Daan gyun naam yu[Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, 2011]; Drug War / Du zhan[Johnnie To, 2012]). Nevertheless, the China coproduction system has not drastically altered To’s production practices (the size of his sound crew remains the same, for instance, as does its division of labor), while To’s production techniques have so far retained their distinctive flavor. His success has enabled him to reject the industry’s drive toward sync-sound recording. Not only does postsynching distinguish To from his peers, it also enhances his films’ uniqueness by fostering creative sonic gestures. Liberated from sync-sound fidelity, To and Chappell go beyond purely referential synchronization to craft soundscapes of rare ingenuity and invention.

The postsynched film adds luster to Johnnie To’s auteur status by pointing to a totalizing “vision” of audiovisual design. This individual vision is not undone by the collaborative nature of film production. “A director who doesn’t edit his own films,” warned Jean Cocteau, “allows himself to be translated into a foreign tongue.”[50] Accordingly, although To grants Chappell creative latitude, he ultimately controls all stylistic parameters of the film. To’s concern to govern acoustic style by means of postsynching points to a larger preoccupation: namely, to recruit the technical resources of the medium into a purely “cinematic” form of personal expression. Chappell’s contribution is central to this enterprise. He discovers imaginative sound-image combinations, wrings a host of effects from individual sound cues, and marshals noise and music into a unified array. Then there is his proclivity to contrast sound effects against To’s narrational and pictorial gambits. Whereas To withholds story information, Chappell furnishes hints.[51] Silent film theorists fretted over the prospect of “canned theater,” of a slavish imitation of image by sound,[52] but Chappell avoids such pitfalls by providing the sound track an integrity of its own. In all, the Milkyway studio has sustained and enriched Hong Kong cinema’s tradition of postsynchronized sound editing. Johnnie To’s stylistic credentials rest on pictorial excellence, but his films’ sound design registers a comparably impressive achievement.

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