From James Bond to Jackie Chan and even King Kong, professional voiceover artists Tol Kunthea and Hong Piseth have dubbed some 10,000 roles into Khmer between them. Sun Narin learns more. Photography by Conor Wall.
In the flesh, Hong Piseth is a portly middle-aged man who wears short-sleeved suits and gaudy gold-plated accessories. But in thousands of foreign movies dubbed over in Khmer, he is the voice of the conquering hero, the sinister villain, the nefarious ghost, the exuberant youngster and the grouchy old man
Tol Kunthea, a 51-year-old voiceover artist who lets her wavy black hair fall freely over her shoulders, is perhaps even more prolific than Piseth. With some 10,000 voice-dubbing credits between them, there is hardly a character that they have not lent their voices to or a film star for whom they have not spoken.
Kunthea’s career kicked off in 1987, when she enrolled in a two-month crash voice dubbing course in Thailand, paid for by Cambodia’s Ministry of Information.
No sooner had she arrived at the training studio than she found herself sitting in a recording booth with a Khmer-language script in hand, Thai vocal tracks coming through her headphones and mouths moving on the monitor in front of her.
It was a trial by fire, she said, that nearly fried her brain. But after stumbling through three pages of a script on the first day, Kunthea quickly learned to sync lines with scenes flashing before her. She ditched the headphones, and by the time the course was finished she was breezing through a TV show per day.
In her first professional gig back in Cambodia, Kunthea voiced for the female lead, the angry mother and the servant in a Hong Kong TV drama in which a married couple struggles to overcome the scorn of the husband’s parents after the wife gives birth to a girl. “I was happy to see them overcome their struggles and stay together in the end,” she says.
Piseth, on the other hand, was a self-taught talent with a broadcast voice born from innumerable hours spent listening to Chem Sareoun, a prolific vocal talent who recorded the audio tracks for many movies produced in Cambodia’s “golden era” of cinema in the 1960s.
Piseth honed his talents doing live theatre in his hometown near the Thai-Cambodia border in the 1980s. His initiation into dubbing for the screen was not in the studio, but at local lounges that would project movies onto the wall and hire Piseth, in cooperation with a translator, to stand behind the audience and provide mostly-improvised live audio accompaniment.
It was in these rudimentary screenings, often as the lone voice-dubber, that Piseth learned to shift seamlessly from one character to another; speaking for the stern father one moment, a whimpering son the next.
It is character types, rather than the peculiarities of a given actor, that seem to allow both Piseth and Kunthea to operate with such efficiency. Whether a movie is from Hollywood, Bollywood, Thailand or China, their process remains rooted in identifying their subject’s core characteristics – mainly age and facial expression – and inflecting their voices accordingly.
Close your eyes and Piseth’s James Bond is indistinguishable from his Jackie Chan. Ghost modulation retains the same grating, throaty quality whether the on-screen apparition appears from a Thai jungle or a mansion in Mumbai.
With so many people to speak for, Piseth and Kunthea simply don’t have time for character studies or nuance. “I just need to understand what is going on so I can explain it to the audience,” says Piseth.
If nothing else, he has taught two generations of Cambodian TV watchers that good guys speak in a smooth, booming baritone and that lesser members of the male cast sound an awful lot like Hong Piseth.
When asked which of their voice-dubbing performances they are most proud of, Kunthea and Piseth respond with the thoughtful silence of people who have never considered the answer to the question at hand.
After a bit of discussion, they decide that their collaboration on the Rush Hour movies, starring Jackie Chan—Chen Long in Khmer—and Chris Tucker—“that really black man with bushy hair”— was their piece de resistance.
“It was a really exciting movie,” explains Kunthea, who provided the voice for the leading ladies as well as every other female speaking part in the film.
“[Jackie Chan] has to fight a lot of people and meets beautiful woman,” says Piseth, who did all of the male voices for the movie, as he raises his arms and does a few karate chops.
In trying to facilitate further reminiscing, it is made apparent that Piseth and Kunthea can remember but a few of the films and TV shows the have lent their voices to. Piseth did King Kong recently—“a lot of grunting and roaring” —and Kunthea remembers fondly her roles as kind women and angry hags.
Five days a week, for the better part of the past three decades, Piseth and Kunthea have sat in front of TV monitors and read their scripts to the best of their ability. When a young girl, embroiled in a sibling spat, sets into her onscreen brother Kunthea, sitting in a chair and watching the scene unfold on her monitor, reaches to the top of her register and lets out an exceedingly shrill “child’s voice.” When the brother responds, she drops her voice an octave and doesn’t miss a beat.