Acknowledgment: I am very grateful to Martin Chappell for assisting with this project. The essay has been richly informed by extensive correspondence with Mr Chappell over a three-year period. Thanks also to Robert Ellis-Geiger, and to Bey Logan for discussing English dubbing practices with me.
1. The chief exception is David Bordwell’s informative blog entry, “The Boy in the Black Hole,” David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, posted on 19 April, 2008,
2. Johnnie To co-founded the Milkyway production house with local filmmaker Wai Ka-fai. Though several of the films discussed below are signed by both To and Wai, practical aesthetic decisions are generally attributed to Johnnie To. Whereas To takes charge of shooting, Wai constructs the screenplay and liaises with To during production. See Stephen Teo, Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), pp. 146-7; and David Bordwell, “Truly, Madly, Cinematically,” David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, posted on April 3, 2008,
3. Li Cheuk-to (ed.), Hong Kong Cinema ’79-’89 (Combined Edition). (Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2000), p. 130.
4. Li Cheuk-to, “Postscript,” in Li Cheuk-to (ed.), Hong Kong Cinema in the Seventies (Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2002), p.130.
5. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Madison, Wisconsin: Irvington Way Institute Press, 2010), p.78.
6. Bolstered by the popularity of Bruce Lee and Shaw Brothers movies, Mandarin cinema flourished at the start of the 1970s, pushing Cantonese-dialect films into decline. Competition for the Mandarin-speaking market emerged from Taiwan, and encouraged Hong Kong filmmakers to seek differentiation by playing up distinctively local elements. The revival of Cantonese cinema was spurred by the success of Chor Yuen’s The House of 72 Tenants / Chat sup yee ga fong hak in 1973. By the late 1970s, Hong Kong cinema was predominantly a Cantonese-dialect cinema, though films would still be dubbed in different dialects for release in various Asian territories.
7. Gary Needham, “Hong Kong Cinema: Sound and Music in Hong Kong Cinema,” in Graeme Harper (ed.) Sound and Music in Film and Visual Media: An Overview (New York: Continuum, 2009), p.365.
8. Pak Tong Cheuk, Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000) (Bristol; Chicago: Intellect Press, 2008), pp. 173; 238.
9. Shu Kei, “The Operations of the Hong Kong Film Industry: From 1984 to 1989,” in Law Kar (ed.), Fifty Years of Electric Shadows: Report of Conference on Hong Kong Cinema 10-12/4/1997, (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1997), p. 19.
10. Quoted in Li Cheuk-to, “Views on New Hong Kong Films 1989-1990,” in Li Cheuk-to (ed.), Hong Kong Cinema ’79-’89 (Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2000), p.129.
11. See David Bordwell, “Truly, Madly, Cinematically,” David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, posted on April 3, 2008,
12. Music scoring is similarly pressurized, with an allotted period of up to three weeks for the composition of about thirty music cues. See “Chung Chi-wing on The Mission,” in Lawrence Pun (ed.), Milkyway Image: Beyond Imagination—Wai Ka-fai + Johnnie To + Creative Team (1996-2005) (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing (H.K.) Ltd, 2006), pp. 186-197. The tight schedule at Milkyway is typical of Hong Kong film scoring generally. Composer Robert Ellis-Geiger, who produced the score for To’s Election 2 (2006), testifies that composers in the region must compose, record, mix, and deliver the film score within only one or two weeks (email correspondence with Robert Ellis-Geiger, 23 April 2012). For information about the scoring of Election 2, see Robert Ellis-Geiger (2007) Trends in Contemporary Hollywood Film Scoring: A Synthesised Approach for Hong Kong Cinema, unpublished PhD thesis available at:
13. Sound crews on Hollywood features frequently number in excess of thirty technicians.
14. Chappell credits postproduction supervisors Hui Koan and Les McKenzie with enhancing his technical knowledge and adventurousness. During an uncommonly long period spent designing the Time and Tide soundtrack (three months), Chappell and Hui experimented by distorting and remolding sounds on the Propellerhead Reason and Fairlight systems, innovating new sound effects and expanding Chappell’s audio library. Email correspondence with Chappell, 11 December 2012.
15. Multitrack sound, too, is contingent on production budgets. Some of Milkyway’s early features employed multitrack devices that yielded up to twelve simultaneous tracks. Since then, denser sound tracks have become possible. The Longest Nite / Um fa (Patrick Yau, 1998) used twenty tracks, while most Milkyway films until Eye in the Sky / Gun chung (Nai Hoi-yau, 2007) synchronized twenty-four channels on a Fairlight console. Today, a Milkyway production starts with still more channels of sound, including sixteen channels for foley alone.
16. Johnnie To may initially invite the composer to “spot” the film; the pair subsequently rework or refine the composer’s efforts. Typically, the composer is allocated only two days to segment the score into cues and place them in the action. Email correspondence with Robert Ellis-Geiger, 23 April 2013.
17. Meshing a music score with other sounds is commonplace in the musical, a genre that Sparrow flirts with. Chappell cites as an influence Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000).
18. Email correspondence with Chappell, 6 December 2012.
19. It is worth noting, moreover, that To permits his sound editor to maneuver and redesign the distributed music cues. Music spotting can be redone easily thanks to Milkyway’s digital armory. This work principle attests not only to the relative autonomy afforded Chappell, but to the requisite flexibility and collaborative ethos that every Hong Kong filmmaker learns to cultivate.
20. Email correspondence with Chappell, 25 August 2011.
21. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p.51.
22. Email correspondence with Chappell, 25 August 2011.
23. See David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Madison, Wisconsin: Irvington Way Institute Press, 2010).
24. Eisenstein, The Film Sense, p.153.
25. Eisenstein, The Film Sense, p.168.
26. Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge, Mass; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), p.358.
27. As David Bordwell points out, “craft routines born of economic pressures...can yield stylistic rewards” (Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong, p.81).
28. Email correspondence with Chappell, 3 April 2011.
29. Email correspondence with Chappell, 6 December 2012.
30. Not coincidentally, the comedic potential of the frame flourishes in Hong Kong film comedy, most prominently in the directorial work of Jackie Chan. In Project A / ‘A’ gai wak (Jackie Chan, 1983) a coastguard, resplendent in white uniform, holds a large tray of pasta and observes a raucous tavern brawl from a distance. Unexpectedly a brawler springs up from the bottom frameline and crashes against the tray, soaking the mortified coastguard in spaghetti sauce. Jackie Chan claims to have studied American silent comedy (see for example Jackie Chan, I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action [London: Pan Books, 1999], p.281), and his films teem with such moments that would have won Arnheim’s approval.
31. For a discussion of inattentional blindness and film spectatorship, see Daniel Barratt, “‘Twist Blindness’: The Role of Primacy, Priming, Schemas, and Reconstructive Memory in a First-Time Viewing of The Sixth Sense,” in Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (London & New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp.62-86.
32. Needless to say, this is not an instance whereby a voice recorded sync-sound is electronically manipulated in postproduction. Rather, the entire vocal performance is produced in postproduction.
33. Michel Chion, Audio Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 89.
34. For the convention of fair play in fiction, see Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1978).
35. Eisenstein, The Film Sense, p.70.
36. Though it’s possible to perceive in PTU a critique of the police and, by extension, the Hong Kong government, critic Stephen Teo points out that To “does not pass any moral judgment on the actions of the police and in a way, seems to justify[their violence].” See Stephen Teo, Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Film (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), p.131.
37. Of course, most filmmakers using sync sound will manipulate recorded material at the sound-mixing stage. [return to page 37]
38. Partway through Sparrow, the cadre of pickpockets traces Chun Lei (Kelly Lin) to a rooftop. Chappell adds the noise of an airplane, but this noise is not mandated by To’s aerial shots. Why add it? Apart from supplying ambience, the sound looks forward to the plot’s climax, when Chun Lei fulfils her goal to depart Hong Kong. “Of course I had seen the end of the movie and knew that Chun Lei is driven to the airport,” says Chappell (email correspondence with Chappell, 25 August 2011). From this advanced position of knowledge, Chappell is able to foreshadow plot action by sonic means.
39. More generally, the thunderstorm constitutes a favorite authorial trope in To’s cinema. Apart from its visual and dramatic value, the motif can work directly upon the spectator’s physiology and be panned around the surround field for sensory effect. See, for example, its appearance in The Mission, PTU, Running on Karma, and Triangle. The hospital comedy Help!!! announces its title with a booming thundercrack, then bleeds the motif into a story element—the first patient we encounter is the unhappy victim of a lightning bolt.
40. In The Mission, the roar of a bus glimpsed hurtling across the shot’s foreground transmutes into a metallic rattle, visually matched to an iron door being wrenched shut.
41. By generally withholding a source for this underscoring, the visual narration triggers the spectator’s hermeneutic activity. What, the spectator asks, is the significance of this persistent motif? A thematic interpretation links the motif to the tragic death that separates the protagonists, evoking notions of time lost, regained, and suspended (i.e. time “lingers”).
42. Email correspondence with Chappell, 25 August 2011. This impulse may account for some of the communicativeness we have discovered at the films’ acoustic level.
43. Email correspondence with Chappell, 25 August 2011.
44. Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), p.41.
45. Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, pp.232; 254.
46. David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), p.137.
47. See Carl Plantinga, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2009), p.131.
48. Think also of PTU’s arcade sequence, where the affective pitch of a physical assault is intensified by prominent video game sounds.
49. For acousmatic sound in cinema, see Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
50. Jean Cocteau and André Fraigneau, Cocteau on the Film (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), p.104.
51. Evidently Johnnie To also encourages his music composers to “go against” the image content, rejecting mickey-mousing and the musical “hitting of visual cues” in favor of “unpredictable” music-image combinations. See Ellis-Geiger, p.153.
52. See Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1957).