When I visited Hong Kong earlier this year, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum was high on my list of places to visit. Why? Because I wanted to see the Jin Yong exhibition that is housed there.
Serious fans of martial arts movies will know the name Jin Yong (the pen name of Dr Louis Cha Leung Yung). Films such as King Hu’s Swordsman and its sequel Swordsman 2 (directed by Tony Ching Siu-Tung and starring Jet Li), Kung Fu Cult Master (also starring Li), and Wong Kar Wai’s genre bending Ashes of Time, are all based on the novels of Jin Yong.
Jin recently died, at the ripe old age of 94, on 30 October 2018. During his lifetime he was acclaimed as one of the literary greats of Chinese culture. You can read an article celebrating his life and achievements here.
As far back as the 1930s, Shaw brothers realised that they had audiences (especially among diasporic Chinese) that were hungry for films that evoked an idealised vision of archaic Chinese culture. Thus, the Shaws and their writers and directors often looked to Chinese folklore and literature for inspiration for plots, characters and themes. Little wonder then that, when their movie-making activities hit their peak in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, Shaws filmmakers adapted their fair share of Jin Yong’s works for screen. These included The Brave Archer, Ode to Gallantry, The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre, and A Deadly Sword.
“Run Run Shaw was once asked what movies he preferred to make. ‘Ones that make money,’ he replied. Not beautiful films, or challenging ones. Shaws has made a career of giving ordinary folk what they wanted to see.” ~ Law Siu Lan.
Because Shaw Brothers Studio was a serious money-making concern, the studio aimed itself squarely at making content that was popular. Jin Yong’s novels were widely read and much loved; they compellingly and skilfully developed the idealised cultural landscapes that were popular with Shaws’ audiences. They must have been an obvious choice for adaptation.
But to characterise Shaws movies as only being a money-grabbing exercise would be wrong. While I was researching my book about Shaws I could see that alongside an ambitious profit motive was a genuine pride in both culture and the craftmanship with which the films were made.
“You know, I am rather tired of people saying, ‘Are you trying to challenge Hollywood?’ I really feel we have something quite different and equally as good as Hollywood has to offer” ~ Run Run Shaw.
I know that Shaws made its fair share of nasty exploitation films, but as well as these it made more wholesome fare with artistic and social aims. Myths, folk stories, and literature (including works by Jin Yong) celebrated and enshrined societal values that were accepted by the public as edifying; they also created fantastic and quasi-historical times and places that afforded their audiences some escapism. Little wonder, then, that Jin Yong’s writing inspired so many great Shaws films.