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Year of the Rat

A few days ago the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Rat began. Rat characteristics include cleverness, a strong work ethic, and entrepreneurialism. As these qualities can be recognised in the way the Shaw Brothers ran their business (in fact, Runme Shaw was born in the Year of the Rat*). I thought that I would check to see if anything significant happened for Shaw Brothers Organisation in past Years of the Rat.

Apparently, the Year of the Rat is auspicious for new beginnings. And it was in 1924, the Year of the Wood Rat, that Shaw Brothers got their start as filmmakers:

“By 1924, (eldest brother) Runje had developed an interest in the new technology of filmmaking. He founded Tianyi (‘Unique’) Film Productions and he and his three younger brothers started writing and producing their own movies. This locates them as being among filmmakers participating in an early ‘golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking centred on Shanghai in the 1920s.” Chapter 2, Ask for the Moon

Another important event that happened in 1924 – one that would have a bearing on the development of future Shaw Brothers enterprises – was that Runme Shaw was delegated to go to Singapore to set up the Shaw Organisation, which is still headquartered there today. This move insured the brothers against the ripple on effects of political unrest and business competition in Shanghai. And it flagged a familial gift for entrepreneurialism:

“There are a couple of things to note here – significant markers in this early bit of history that were to harden into patterns of behaviour over the decades. One is the extraordinary perspicacity Shaws showed: Runme was sent to Singapore soon after the Shaws’ movie business started, thereby hedging Shaws’ bets when competition from (other film studios) and disruption from the political situation became too unstable an environment for their business to remain viable in Shanghai. By the time the Shanghai film studio had to close in 1937 (the same year the Japanese won the Battle of Shanghai), the Singapore branch of the family business was well established. This early pivot… paid off. Time and again, during their history after this point, the Shaws’ willingness to embrace the new (whether that be in location or business model) was to be to their benefit.” Chapter 2, Ask for the Moon

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
Illustration by Rebecca Stewart https://rebeccalennoxstewart.com/book-illustration

The Shaws’ willingness to innovate can be seen as apposite to the Year of the Rat characteristics mentioned above. Truthfully, Run Run and Runme Shaw were such brilliant strategists, and their entertainment empire so complex and busy, that it is hard to find a year in Shaws Organisation’s history when something ground-breaking didn’t happen. Still, perhaps a good beginning in the Year of the Wood Rat in 1924 did do something to put them onto the road to success.

Happy New Year! Let’s hope that 2020 is auspicious for all of us.

*Run Run Shaw was born in the Year of the Goat.

The Yellow Carpet

If you are ever lucky enough to watch a Shaw Brothers martial arts movie from the 60s or 70s, be sure to keep an eagle eye out for the yellow carpet:

“Somewhere during his film commentary on Heroes of the East, kung fu movie expert Bey Logan points out a magnificent yellow carpet that is used to dress a set. He mentions that some fans (he thinks they were Dutch) pointed out to him that this same carpet is used time and again in Shaw Brothers movie sets. I first listened to Logan’s excellent commentary years ago now; his comment about the carpet stuck in my mind. It stuck in my mind because he, and those sharp-eyed Dutch fans, were right. That carpet can be seen adorning Shaw Brothers sets again and again… Once you notice it the first time it’s hard to miss: it’s a rich yellow tastefully set off by dark blue patterning. It can be seen in countless martial arts flicks being trodden on by emperors, warriors, courtesans, merchants, sifus, priests, and evil eunuchs… anywhere an opulent room is required that yellow carpet will be there, quietly glowing underfoot. Obviously, it was toted around by Shaw Brothers’ corps of set dressers, from film production to film production.” ~ Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios.

The Magic Blade
Still from The Magic Blade

Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios made wonderfully entertaining martial arts movies. They made a lot of them – some 320 or so in 25 years. These films were highly profitable for the company, hauling in huge box office receipts not just in Hong Kong but anywhere in the world a sizeable, and nostalgic, Chinese diaspora lived. Not only were they profitable, but, compared to many of the films made by their competitors, they also set a new benchmark in terms of production standards. A number of them were downright lavish. Of course, this played a part in keeping audiences coming back for more. Shaws were able to position themselves as leaders in their field. Already a successful entertainment company by the end of the 50s, with businesses in amusement parks, commercial real estate, cinemas and film distribution, Shaws were able to dominate the film production and distribution industries from the 60s until the 80s.

So what does all this have to do with the yellow carpet? This piece of set dressing is a clue as to how Shaws achieved this success. The Studios implemented a film production process that was geared towards keeping costs down, resources optimally used, output regular, and quality consistent. Sets, costumes, actors, crews, even storylines were recycled from film to film. The result were films that were predictably entertaining and reliably good:

“The least original, most run-of-the mill Shaw Brothers martial arts movie was still a handsome film compared to those of Shaws’ competitors at the time. As a collective body of work, Shaws’ martial arts movies set an important industry benchmark for how films in this genre could look. Many of the Shaws films may not have been innovative, but they did constitute an improvement. That this was achieved demonstrates the efficacy of Shaws’ production model, with its pooling of resources and tightly controlled processes. Opportunity to experiment or risk failure was constrained in such an environment; when innovation did happen, it was all the more remarkable.” ~ Ask for the Moon.

The trade-off was that the films looked a bit same-ish. And while many of the filmmakers who churned out these films were undeniably creative in their approach, not all of them were able to find the time or other resources to innovate with their filmmaking technique.

Their collective achievement in lifting standards in film production, and creating a huge body of work that was culturally significant for Hong Kong, is laudable. But the constant appearance of the yellow carpet, along with all of the other props, sets, costumes, and familiar faces, in Shaws’ films is a reminder that improvement is not always equal to, or causative of, innovation.

The directors at Shaws who were able to innovate did something more than just work hard and efficiently. They were able to manipulate conditions so that they could find the space and agency within Shaws’ tightly controlled production processes to experiment and take creative risks. Their endeavours in doing this can tell us as much about the nature of innovation in large and complex organisations as it does about the needs of artists.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Watch For It!”

In my book about Shaw Brothers Studios – Ask for the Moon – I used the English language advertising taglines from the old Shaw Brothers movie trailers as subtitles within the chapters.

“Gripping Drama Packed Into Just One Day!”

I used them because I enjoy them. I feel that they capture the flavour of the films – their declamatory language conveys an energy imbued in these dynamic movies that is much beloved by their fans.

The old trailers – and their taglines – date from the 60s and 70s mostly and come across as a bit dated and hokey now. So often when viewing pop culture from other eras it is too easy to be dismissive – James Bond movies, spaghetti westerns, Hollywood musicals, and chopsocky are readily viewed with what film scholar Leon Hunt calls a “camp gaze” *. Modern viewers can tend to look at these artefacts in order to see something cute, or funny, or bizarre, and reactions can range from patronising to contemptuous.

“Action Every Minute! Tension Every Hour!”

I do find the old Shaw Brothers trailers to be a wee bit mad. And there are elements of the films – the bad wigs, the (at times) bizarre soundtracks – that strike me as tiny bit strange too, if I’m to be honest. But it’s not this that draws me to these films.

Behind some of the dated effects lies entertainment that is still compelling. And the filmmakers at Shaws were often audaciously creative, managing to embed imaginative flourishes into the Shaw Brothers’ stylistic template that they were constrained to follow to mark their individual style; some (such as Lau Kar Leung or Chor Yuen) managed to go even further and create artistic innovations.

“A Pageant of Kung Fu Spectaculars!”

Sir Run Run Shaw, in his running of Shaw Brothers Studios, had the firm goal of making big profits from his movies, but he also loved film (his first job was as a cinematographer) and he was proud of the Chinese culture made manifest in Shaw Brothers movies. He hired top talent to work in front of and behind the camera and, although contracted to an assembly line approach to churning out product at a regular clip, these filmmakers were serious professionals who set out to make the best movies they could. Sir Run Run developed a production process that was geared towards making product and selling it quickly, but he also made sure that his productions were the best resourced in Asia at the time and, as a result, neatly conjoined the goals of quality control and assurance, cost effectiveness, and high standards in art production.

“An Abrupt Ending!”

I used the old trailer taglines as subtitles because they suggested the over the top energy of the films, but also testified to something more. They are expressions of pride and exultation. They are bold and unapologetic exclamations of the films’ intended importance and impact – to the studio, to culture, and as benchmarks in filmmaking standards of the time.

*Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Master, (London: Wallflower Press, 2003), p. 12

 

Jin Yong: Ode(s) to Gallantry

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.

alchetron.com
‘A Deadly Secret’. Image sourced from alchetron.com

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.

Raymond Chow: Innovative Producer

The past month has been a sad one for martial arts culture fans, for it brought us the deaths of Yueh Hua, Jin Yong, and Raymond Chow (obituary here).

Surely many western fans of Hong Kong cinema owe their awareness of it to Golden Harvest (now known as Orange Sky Golden Harvest), which produced and distributed the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung, among others.

BruceLeetheManandtheLegend+1973-7-b hkmdb
Image from hkmdb.com

I wrote about Golden Harvest in my book about Shaw Brothers Studios because they were not only Shaws’ most potent competitors but also because they were founded by Leonard Ho and Raymond Chow who, before they started the company, had been two of the most valuable executives working at Shaw Brothers.

What interested me, when I was researching the business and production models of both Shaw Brothers Studios and Golden Harvest, was how differently they were structured and how this, in turn, informed their relationship to the filmmaking talent they worked with.

Chow and Ho developed a business model that was particularly good at satisfying the needs of creative talent as well as cannily identifying ways of capturing profit. Their business model was as different from that of their primary rival Shaw Brothers as you could get: where (Shaw Brothers’) Movietown was huge, the Golden Harvest headquarters were tiny; where Sir Run Run Shaw rigidly controlled just about everything to do with the making of his films, Chow and Ho were very strategic as to what aspects of filmmaking they controlled and they weren’t afraid to delegate.” ~ From Chapter 10 ‘Bitter Harvest’ in ‘Ask for the Moon’ by Meredith Lewis

In other words, Chow and Ho developed an approach to filmmaking that allowed innovative talent like Lee, Chan, and Hung space to do their thing, while Sir Run Run’s approach made finding this space harder for any innovative filmmakers at Shaw Brothers.

RaymondChowManWai-8-b hkmdb
Image from hkmdb.com

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Sir Run Run found out that Ho and Chow were leaving his company and going into competition against him. Chow had started his working life as a print journalist and then branched out into television and radio producing. Sir Run recruited him to work for Shaw Brothers in 1959, with Leonard Ho joining not long after. These two men learnt about the film industry at Shaws, and their experience there must have been invaluable to them when they branched out on their own. How interesting, then, that they created an organisation that functioned in ways so radically different to those employed by their former master.

Their approach worked. Golden Harvest’s list of productions contains many of the most popular and / or seminal films in the history of Hong Kong cinema from the early 70s up until today (you can look at Raymond Chow’s filmography and a short bio here at hkmdb.com).

So, no wonder so many martial arts film fans felt a sense of loss when they heard of the passing of this remarkable entrepreneur and creative visionary. We are lucky that we have so many of the films he was involved in to enjoy.