From Chow Yun-fat to a talking teddy, it's hard to keep up with the roles of an
SIMON Broad could easily suffer from a multiple personality disorder, or at least an identity crisis. You see, some days he wakes up to find he is Chow Yun-fat. On others, he is Bruce Lee. And in the same week - sometimes even in the same day - he might also discover he is Andy Lau Tak-wah, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
Although Broad's mind might sound like rich terrain for a thorough psychiatric probing, he is not mad. 'Well, not completely mad, anyway,' he says.
Rather, he is Hong Kong's viceroy of the voice-over; the doyen of dubbers. For the past 17 years, the New Zealand-born thespian has been the English-language voice of just about any male Cantonese star - and probably the odd female one - that you care to name.
He has grunted and aaaiiieeeyyaaed and growled and gurgled and shrieked through more chop socky films than you could shake a set of nunchaku at. He has reached down to the depths of his soul to try to find a voice to match the stealthy slaughter of some creeping ninja. He has roared as Godzilla rampaged, and even oohed and oh-baby-ed his way through the odd Category III flesh-fest.
Once these films, ranging from the good to (more often) the egregious, are dubbed in English, they are sent off to all manner of weird places. 'Half the time we haven't a clue where the movies are going,' says Broad. 'It's all for the overseas video market - you know, the sort of thing you'd see in a bus in Pakistan.' The bad news for Broad is that he now presides over a crumbling empire. With the local film industry languishing in the doldrums and a slice of stars and directors having scarpered for Hollywood, there simply are not that many movies left to dub.
'I guess in a way it's the end of an era,' says Broad, who operates his own company, Two Guys, with fellow actor Jack Murphy. 'There's really only a handful of us left doing dubbing these days.' When he arrived in Hong Kong in 1981 as a callow 17-year-old from Wellington, the big trend was ninjas.
'I was living with a model friend who had been in a film and she told me they needed people to dub the voices, so I decided to give it a try. There was a chap around at that time called Godfrey Ho. He would buy a film from Thailand or the Philippines, then film his own shots with ninjas in Hong Kong.
'Then he would hire a scriptwriter to come up with a story that fitted the shots. And then we'd dub it. We were doing that every week. I'd be doing two or three characters, it was all ninja - Teacher Ninja. Bride Of Ninja. Bride Of Ninja II. The market was West Germany, the US - there were cool clubs that would screen these Hong Kong action films for a laugh because they were so dreadful.' He began dubbing TVB and ATV programmes in English for the Indonesian market, and then became involved with film companies Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers.
'We used to get paid $100 an hour, cash in hand. Half the time they'd give us a plot and we'd make it up as we went along, there wasn't even a script,' says Broad.
'At the industry's peak, in the late 1980s, I was working seven days a week. It was crazy. One year, I did more than 170 films. I guess it was around 1991 that things really started to die down. How many films have I dubbed all together? Oh, easily 700 or more.' These include every Chow Yun-fat film, plus most of Jet Li's oeuvre. Broad was also the voice of television's Judge Pao, when 20 episodes of the series were dubbed and sold to Singapore.
'I've done Jackie Chan once or twice. I did Bruce Lee in a rerelease of Way Of The Dragon. The last show I did was just before Jet Li left to do Lethal Weapon 4 - a film called Black Mask.
'What else? I did Chungking Express, the Wong Kar-wai film. One thing we've never dubbed is the Hong Kong comedy, the Stephen Chiau Sing-chi kind of stuff. It just doesn't translate.' Bizarrely, Broad was also used by the mainland authorities to dub propaganda films into English. He says some have to be dubbed three or four times, for different distributors who want different versions.
'As long as it sounds good and butch, they're usually pretty happy. The main thing before was that you had to do an American accent, although that's changed,' he says.
'The whole thing was great fun, basically. And you got to see a lot of movies for free. Your voice does get strained, doing it year after year after year. I'm sure I'll get nodules, all that yelling and screaming.
'The thing that gets boring is when you go to parties, and someone says, 'Do Jackie Chan for me'. But it's not like that. You can't just do it on demand. It only comes alive when you've got the movie going in front of you and you get into character.' Jude Poyer represents the other end of the dubbing spectrum - as a young actor most often called upon to play the 'evil gweilo' in local action movies, he has just begun picking up the odd scrap of dubbing work.
'I'm a complete beginner, but when you see the way some of the movies are dubbed here, I thought, well, I couldn't be any worse,' he says.
He has just finished filming Chinese Hero, the follow-up to last year's successful action flick Storm Riders. 'My character's lines are in English, so I figured I'd ask if I could dub them myself rather than have someone else come along and do it,' he says.
'I also did some dubbing for a pretty lousy sci-fi action film I was in called Trust Me U Die. I'd like to do some more dubbing, it's really quite a laugh, although there really is very little work these days.' What work there is generally gets offered to veterans of the field such as Broad. Still, Poyer believes there is room for some new blood.
'The industry has shrunk, but it's not dead. There are fewer Hong Kong films being made, but some of those being made are of better quality and higher budget than before. They are aiming for an international audience, and have English-language content, so the dubbing has to be better.
'For example, Shannon Lee's film, Enter The Eagles (in which Poyer was - shock! - an evil gweilo) the baddies were Arabs but they sounded like they came from the Bronx. It's just silly.' Broad says his erstwhile bosses at the big studios missed the point of what made Hong Kong action films a hit overseas. 'They always blamed us because foreigners would laugh at the films. What they didn't realise was that that was the attraction - the corny dialogue, the kitsch appeal of the whole thing. And now Hong Kong is flavour of the month in Hollywood, there's a real cult value attached to some of these films now.' The quality of dubbing varies enormously, depending on the film company's budget. 'Sometimes we wouldn't even get to rehearse. You'd just do it straight off. Sometimes I've taken seven days on a movie, sometimes we've done two in a morning. You get to the point where you can almost do it in the time it takes to screen the film. Some companies want you to try to match the dialogue to the way the lips are moving as closely as possible, others couldn't care less.' Getting the lipsyncing to look real is quite an art, he says. 'Of course, now with digital equipment you don't have to be on time, they can play around and move it to make the voice fit the mouth movements. But I was trained the old way, to sit there doing it until it fits.' Broad says that usually while dubbing 'you feel like a complete idiot. Sometimes you're doing two or three characters, so you're sitting there talking to yourself in different voices. You know, you're never alone when you're schizo phrenic.' So how about the Category III? 'Oh yeah. That [giggle]. It's really difficult, when you're sitting there with one of your friends and you're supposed to be having it off, and you're reading a book and she's doing her fingernails.
'We'd also have to make all the fighting sounds on the kung fu films, you know, hooha, aarrhgh, grrrr. Sometimes there'd be thousands of guys running up a hill or something and there's, like, four of you sitting there, trying to make it sound real.' As movie work has dried up, Broad says he has been forced to diversify. 'We're doing a lot more animation stuff now - European cartoons, Japanese cartoons, soap operas from South America.' 'I think animation is the future of voice work in Hong Kong. A lot of the animation done in South Korea and China has the voices done here.' Broad also admits to have been the voice of a 'talking stomach' on a television advertisement to teach children about hygiene. 'That was so wacky it ended up on one of Clive James' shows,' he says.
'Another thing we're doing a lot of right now is talking toys. Most of the toy factories are in China, so it's cheaper to get the voices done in Hong Kong than in the US or wherever. The silly voices you hear when you buy a toy - that's probably me. Father Christmas, Halloween pumpkins, witches. I've been an El Nino toy - whatever that was - a talking teddy bear. This year the big rage was talking yoyos in the US, so I did a lot of yoyo voices.' He puts on his best Don Corleone rasp. 'GET ME BACK UP'.
The movie work might be all but gone, but Broad believes there are still plenty of opportunities for those with versatile vocal chords. 'There have always been opportunities in Hong Kong and I don't think that will change. I could move on, but I'd like to stay and try to build something positive.'