The first kung fu film I saw was in 1973, Bruce Lee‘s Fist of Fury (1972; aka The Big Boss). I noticed the English dialogue didn’t match up with the mouths of the Chinese actors and learned that English speakers were providing voiceovers for the versions of Chinese language films dubbed into English. It was crazy and I wondered, “How did they do that?” As it turned out, a few months after arriving in Taiwan in 1979, one of my first jobs was dubbing kung fu films into English. So here’s how we did that.

How Were 70s Kung Fu Films Dubbed?

kung fu films 70s film
Vintage movie background in cinematic color effect, texture of unrolled 35mm filmstrip reel and clapper board

Whenever I dubbed a film, I’d work with the same three to four people and I’d do four to six different character/film. We were given a script in Chinese with English subtitles. We had four hours to dub one film, and only dub dialogue and small crowd scenes. We’d watch a five-minute clip twice, once in Chinese, once without sound, then dubbed it.

We would choose our characters in each scene and remember what voices we used for them. We had to memorize the dialogue because there was no time to read the script while the clip was playing. Most important, our voices must start when the character’s mouth moves and finish when the character’s mouth stops. Speed was of the essence.

Since we weren’t professional actors or dubbers, after the second film we ran out of different voices, so we’d develop a good guy voices, a villain voices, an innkeeper voices, etc, and that’s why these films often sound alike. What if there’s thirty Chinese characters of dialogue with a two English-word translation? Make stuff up that makes sense. And if there’s four Chinese characters and 10 words of English, say something fast with a similar meaning. Often times four or five of my characters were in the same scene, thus I’d have a five-way conversation with myself in five different voices. It was hilarious and fun.

Sometimes we had an Australian help out. Not that our voices weren’t out of place enough, but having an Australian twang saying, “Mate,” sounded zany.

Dubbed 70s Chinese Kung Fu Films into English

kung fu films 70s film
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In Chinese period piece films, Mandarin is spoken in an old-fashioned way, equivalent to English versus Shakespearean English, where the language has its own cinematic rhythm and certain words were dubbed in a fashion to fill in the gaps of the dialogue. For example, the word ke shi, which mean but, yet for the two-syllable word to match the mouth movements of the Chinese actor, we used, “But still,” which became synonymously popular with dubbed kung fu films.

What’s really funny was when I was working on Chinese film and TV shows as an actor/stuntman, I’d meet the actors whose voices I dubbed into English. It was a great way to break the ice as they’d ask me what kind of voice did I use for them. Of course I always used my deepest, manly hero voice for their characters…not.

When I returned to the United States in the early ’80s, stand up comics would make fun of these dubbed films. These comics would grunt, hem, haw and do voices being way out of synch to the point that they’d move their lips but there would be no sound. To those comediennes, I must thank you for all of your incorrect presentations because its you folks that made me an important part of American pop culture. Let me add, that of the more than 2000, old dubbed-into-English kung fu films in my collection, there’s maybe 10 that come across the way the comediennes presented them on TV and in comedy clubs.

The Best Dubbed 70s Film Ever

kung fu films 70s film
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However, there’s one 1974 film that I’m sure none of these jokers saw, which to me, is the best 1970s, English-dubbed Chinese kung fu film ever done.

Right from the opening scene, this Taiwanese made movie directed by Tien Peng, has Mickey Spillane noir written all over it, where each camera shot and angle looks like something out of a B&W Orson Welles thriller. But if that doesn’t take the proverbial cake, about ten minutes into the film you’ll realize that the English dubbing is so good and you might wonder how come other kung fu films aren’t as deft.

Then as you watch more intently, it finally hits you…most actors are speaking English. Yep, although the voices are dubbed into English you can tell that many of the lines are being delivered in English, undoubtedly with heavy Chinese accents.

When I worked in kung fu films in Taiwan, I had heard about such a film but dismissed it as an urban legend. However, while living in Illinois in 1988, I rented a third-generation VHS copy of The Tongfather (1974; aka Hands of Death and The Notorious Bandit) for a US $3.00 from a no-name video store. I watched in total disbelief.

Dubber Behind the Camera

kung fu films 70s film

It’s the beauty of filming without sound. When I was a speech coach for the Shaw Brothers production of The Battle for the Republic of China (1981), one star had a major speech to do in English. Instead of having him memorize the English, as the camera rolled, I was behind the camera yelling out the lines in English and he’d repeat them in the cadence and emotion I said them. During post, I was the dubber for his English lines as well as for several other characters that had English dialogue.

It was called the da koh technique, which I thought meant the big mouth way. Yet my assumption may have been incorrect. Da Er Koh (translated at Big Bad Bandit), is the Chinese romanized title of Tongfather. If Da and Er are said quickly it sounds like Da…thus the aforementioned dubbing technique was probably named after Da Er Koh‘s Chinese title. I can imagine how the dialogue portions of this film were shot.

Taiwanese made kung fu films back then weren’t affected by music copyright laws, thus The TemptationsPapa Was A Rolling Stone (1971) and Pink Floyd‘s Echoes (1971), alluringly haunt the film throughout.

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