Extract from ‘Ask for the Moon’

“The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing.” ~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Strange things happen in the night fog. This is ‘Moonlit Sky’, a well-known scenic place by the shore of the South Sea. During moonlit nights, the waterfall reflects colourful lights, creating a beautiful backdrop. Hence the name. This is a very picturesque place, but there has been a string of strange things happening. People can hear mysterious sounds of zither, but no one has seen the player. Many from the martial arts world have come here for the legend. The strange thing is, no one who comes here ever returns home. After they have disappeared for days, their bodies would flow out from the waterfall.” ~ Opening voiceover from The Enchantress

The Enchantress (1984) starts promisingly with this voiceover; the sets do indeed show a “scenic place” and the gloriously hued “colourful lights”, enhanced by smoke machines pumping out vapour on an industrial scale, set off the artificial rocks, waterfall, trees, and night sky to wonderful effect. Not many seconds after this voiceover does its scene-setting work, the film’s hero appears and wins his first fight. Thereafter, The Enchantress takes us on a wild ride with its story of an assorted group of swordsmen, magically gifted Taoists, and divinities doing battle against an evil vampiric spirit (the titular enchantress). Spells, possessions, ghosts, disappearing mansions, a magic mirror, a visit to heaven, and plenty of sword fights are all accommodated in the plot.

This being a Shaw Brothers Studio film, the production values are fabulous, with exquisite costumes, sets, lighting, and action. Being a film about the supernatural, much of it takes place at night, so shining down on some of the nocturnal scenes, with sets all constructed and used on indoor lots, is a beautiful, sumptuous artificial moon.

As a former arts worker who has worked on many badly funded projects, I absolutely understand the director of The Enchantress Chor Yuen’s tone of wonder in being able to “ask for the moon” and then getting it. During their martial arts movie making heyday, Shaw Brothers made sure that their massive studio, Movietown, was stuffed to the gills with state-of-the-art resources. The brothers were on a mission. Powered by a bold new business model, they proceeded to pump out movies with assembly-line efficiency. Their intention was to flood and dominate the market with handsome films that had artistic merit and made lots of money. To this end, they employed gifted people to work in front of and behind the camera. The finished products were eye-popping entertainment, which bore the imprimatur of the creatively audacious artists who made them and, paradoxically, of a rigid filmmaking template. Shaw Brothers films are unmistakable in aesthetic because of the assembly-line approach, but often contain surprising effects, as Shaws’ artists embedded creative flourishes of their own into the fabric of the films they were working on.

Thus, Shaw Brothers films often show the best and worst of chopsocky; they can be strange compounds of the overblown, the ridiculous, and the hackneyed, while also bearing the hallmarks of cinematic art that has been lovingly crafted with skill and audacious imagination.

This book looks at how Shaw Brothers Studios set up the conditions to support and constrain the creativity of its filmmakers.

From Chapter 1: Innovate or Die, Grasshopper!

If you want to purchase Ask for the Moon then please click here.

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