august 4, 1999
Ni hao, Jet!
Firstly, I want to say that this is one of the best "fan" sites I've ever seen. None of that silly celebrity stuff, but plenty of food for thought. Great! I am writing from Melbourne, Australia, where there are more Jet Li and Hong Kong film fans than you probably imagine. We all hope to see you here in person one day :-)
As for my question, I was wondering how you coped with making films in Hong Kong before you learned Cantonese? From what I understand, before synch recording was introduced a few years ago, most of the cast would say their lines in Cantonese while you would say yours in Mandarin, with a Cantonese dub recorded for everything later. How did you know your cue if your fellow actors were speaking in Cantonese? And how did they know when to speak if you were speaking in Mandarin?! Maybe a silly question but I have been trying to imagine the scenario for a long time!
It's true that for decades, Hong Kong movies were generally not filmed with synchronized sound recording; this was because actors came from all over (Hong Kong, the mainland, Taiwan, and other places) and everybody spoke in different dialects and accents. Even in the case that everybody was from Hong Kong, dialogue scenes still wouldn't necessarily work. Another reason why directors chose to film without sound was that they could change the lines of the script when it came time to redub the dialogue scenes. So, even Hong Kong-born actors -- like Jackie Chan, whose Cantonese is fine -- left the voice dubbing to somebody else. Not because they were too busy to do it themselves. This was just the way things were done in Hong Kong; nobody had ever required the actors to dub their own lines -- especially in action movies. It may not have been a very advanced way of making movies, but it was an established practice of many years.
As a result, there was never a strict requirement that an aspiring actor had to learn Cantonese before he could make films in Hong Kong. If he could speak Mandarin, that was usually good enough. It only mattered that everybody on set could basically communicate with each other.
Only recently did it become standard practice in Hong Kong to do synch recording on set. Remember, it does cost a lot more money to ensure good sound recording for a movie.
Regarding my own language skills...to this day, I still wouldn't say that I'm very comfortable speaking Cantonese. When I was making my first movie, I could understand Cantonese when it was spoken to me, but I never seriously studied it myself. Later, Hong Kong people would sometimes make fun of me for speaking "Jet Li language." You know, "half-Mandarin, half-Cantonese, mix the two together and hope the people understand." Anyway, people who are familiar with me know what I'm trying to say.