“In the film industry, one walks a tightrope, satisfactions, and dangers. That is perhaps why the business of making movies has given me the pleasure, the excitement, and the fulfilment I have always craved.” ~ Sir Run Run Shaw
I used this quote in my recent book, Ask for the Moon. Sir Run Run’s company – Shaw Brothers Organisation – was a market leader in the filmmaking and distribution industry in Asia in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, and, although it is not as busy producing films, is still a successful corporation in various sectors even today.
The Shaw Brothers manoeuvred their business into a position of predominance through a combination of clever strategy and calculated risk taking. My book is about innovation, both in terms of business modelling and artistic (filmmaking) output, and Shaw Brothers Organisation is a perfect case study for this.
“An astonishing number of kung fu movies are about innovation. A common feature of the genre, and one that is often held against it, especially by Western viewers, is a recurring plotline that underpins these movies time and time again. If classic Hollywood movies relied on the boy-gets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-gets-girl-again story arc (and, funnily enough, this isn’t held against this genre) then kung fu movies often have the following:
Villain slaughters hero’s entire family and nearly does for the hero, who escapes by the skin of his teeth;
Hero, knowing he can’t beat villain, as he is a far technically superior fighter, goes into hiding and broods on how he can extract revenge on the bastard;
Hero has a flash of inspiration and discovers or invents or adapts a technique or weapon that can counter the villain’s technical advantages;
Hero kills villain.
Thus, in Executioners from Shaolin (1977), the young hero experiments with, adapts, and combines the Crane and Tiger techniques of his parents to avenge himself on the killer of his father (a villain who has mastered technique so completely that he can, at will, make his testicles retract inside his body, thereby creating a groinal cavity that, when his opponent goes to kick him in the bollocks, entraps that opponent’s foot leaving him flailing and powerless). (I’m not making this up). But sometimes different storylines emerged to deal with the theme of innovation. Kung fu and wuxia movies are also mad keen on featuring snazzy and devastatingly destructive gadgetry – weaponry or booby traps – and some movies look at the invention of these.
One such movie is The Flying Guillotine (1975) … In this movie, a callous emperor commissions the invention of a new weapon that can be deployed against some particularly pesky subversives and strike the fear of God into everyone else into the bargain. He is presented with the Flying Guillotine, which, for the purposes of this movie, looks like a bee keeper’s helmet with a retractable metallic mesh hood that plops down over the head of the intended victim. At the bottom of the mesh is a ring of blades. When the emperor’s squad of especially trained assassins throw this lethal headgear at their victim, it engulfs and neatly slices off their heads. The assassin retrieves the helmet and newly decapitated head via the agency of a long chain attached to the Flying Guillotine, and disappears into the night, leaving any witnesses to reel about in horror. One assassin becomes morally disgusted with all this and escapes, the rest of the squad is sent after him. But he beats them all by inventing a brand-new weapon – actually an adaptation of a hitherto harmless domestic implement – that he can use to counter the effects of the Flying Guillotine. So, behind the joyfully disgusting impact of watching the Guillotines whizz about onscreen, this film is about innovation – taking an invention and figuring out how to adapt and deploy it in new ways to achieve a desired result.” pp. 69-71, Ask for the Moon.
I fully intended to write a blog about the theme of my book, Ask for the Moon, this morning. I turned up to a writers’ group, equipped with my trusty laptop, all on fire to do it. I got to talking to another writer sitting nearby. He asked me what my book was about, and I explained that I was using the making of martial arts movies by a famous Hong Kong based movie studio as a case study exploring business model innovation and creativity. His response: “COME AGAIN?” I re-phrased and re-explained. He pulled a face and said, “That’s unusual” and I pointed out that, if I was writing a book about innovation, it had better be.
The word innovation has been so freely, and non-discerningly, bandied about that, like many buzzwords, it has lost its meaning. But the word actually means applying creative thinking to do something different in the name of adding value.
Human beings are innately creative creatures. From our knuckle dragging ancestors onwards we have been tinkering and experimenting with things to make them beautiful and / or better. Innovative practice can be found in all walks of life but at certain times and places in history it does seem to cluster and concentrate. I believe that Shaw Brothers Studios was one of these places. The business model of the studio was unique for its time and place; the Shaw Brothers could be seen to be innovators as entrepreneurs. From a filmmaking perspective, some of their directors did things differently, advancing their art form as creative innovators. In looking at these two forms of innovation co-existing, we can learn much about the nature of innovation and the conditions that support it.
Ask for the Moon has wonderful illustrations and cover art, created especially for the book by Rebecca Stewart. Prior to working on this book I had never collaborated with an illustrator before and I found the process both fascinating and rewarding.
Why illustrations? Why not just stills from Shaw Brothers films?
It felt important to have images in a book about a visual art form like film but, working with a tiny budget, I was concerned that I couldn’t afford to pay fees for copyright licences to use stills from the films. Perhaps, more importantly, Rebecca and I both agreed that it just didn’t make sense to populate a book that had innovation as its overarching theme with reproduced images. We felt that illustrations that were an original response to the book’s content would better honour that overarching theme.
Choice of illustrator.
I was delighted when Rebecca offered to illustrate the book. In many ways she was the ideal artist for this project. I have known Rebecca for years, and we have collaborated before but in completely different roles and on a completely different project, never as writer and illustrator.
I have long enjoyed looking at Rebecca’s artwork and knew her to be an extremely talented artist, with a particular passion for illustration. Pertinently, for a book dealing with a kinetic art form like martial arts movies, she has an instinct for drawing movement: Rebecca is a mad keen fencer, training and competing regularly, and, prior to this project, I had seen many of her dynamic sketches depicting fencers in training.
Rebecca also started off her professional career as an animator and is highly film literate, so she quickly got the ways in which the filmmakers I was wanting to talk about in the book – Lau Kar Leung, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Chang Cheh – were exceptional.
Rebecca came on board a few months before the completion of the writing of the book. She read the second draft, we had quite a few meetings to discuss the ideas I wanted to write about as well as the aesthetics of Shaw Bothers films, and I supplied her with a collection of images that I felt typified these aesthetics. These included screen shots from the films themselves, digital images of marketing collateral harvested off the internet such as posters, lobby cards, and Shaws’ own fan magazines.
Rebecca did her own research, unearthing gems such as some terrific photos of Sir Run Run Shaw which inspired her caricatures of him in the book. Of course, she watched DVDs – I was gratified to find that The Magic Blade went down particularly well – and found clips from the movies on YouTube. I remember her telling me that, as a preparatory exercise to get her eye in, she was working through a fight scene from The Five Venoms on YouTube by stopping it every few moves and doing some sketches, when she had an epiphany as to just how beautifully complex the choreography in these films can be and realised what had been inspiring me about this aspect of martial arts filmmaking for years.
Every few weeks Rebecca showed me some of these preparatory sketches to check if I was happy with the way the illustrations were shaping up. I was intrigued, and excited, to see that Rebecca was modifying her own style to ensure that the illustrations for this specific book were complementary to the tone and aesthetics of Shaws’ films. Check out Rebecca’s Instagram page to see the style of other drawings in comparison to the work she did for Ask for the Moon.
So, all in all, the process of working with an illustrator was a wonderful process, both for the creative companionship such a collaboration can bring as well as having a suite of images that add another layer of meaning to the book.
Brendan from Bedrock Gamesrecently interviewed me about my book for the Bedrock Games podcast. We did the interview via Skype and struggled with the internet connection somewhat (like most Aussies, I was quick to lay the blame on our woeful internet speeds) but otherwise it was a really fun conversation. Brendan really knows his wuxia and shared some great questions and insights.
If you are a fan of the martial arts movie genre then the Bedrock Games blogand podcast is really well worth checking out.
If you want to listen to the podcast, then you can find it here.
“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
Someone recently asked me why I called my book Ask for the Moon.
Ask for the Moon is part film criticism, part history, part musings on the nature of innovation. It describes a daring adventure in filmmaking, both creatively and in terms of business and production models. Entrepreneurialism, as demonstrated with such flair by producers Run Run and Runme Shaw, and martial arts movie making, as demonstrated with equal flair by the likes of filmmakers like Lau Kar Leung and Chor Yuen and others, might seem like odd bedfellows, but at Shaw Brothers these two seemingly disparate things came together in a venture that saw benchmarking films massed produced. This venture was a success – Shaws films are vastly entertaining and have left a rich legacy in terms of filmmaking and social history in Hong Kong. As a business, the studio was equally successful: Shaws dominated their industry both as producers and distributors for more than two decades and made money hand over fist.
Shaw Brothers Studios constituted a daring experiment in filmmaking, and an experiment that worked. One clever thing that Run Run Shaw did when developing the Studios was to pool good resources so that they were handy to support his filmmakers; as the above quote from Chor Yuen points out the resources he and his fellow filmmakers could draw on were “amazing”.
I am not good at titles, and actually only came up with the title for this book shortly before we started typesetting it. Illustrator and typesetter Rebecca Stewarthad to keep reminding me that we needed one!
In the end I am really happy with this title. While it does allude to that amazing level of resourcing that Shaws were able to provide, I think it also captures the aspirational nature of what was being undertaken at Shaw Brothers Studios, by entrepreneurs and filmmakers alike. Shaws films are exercises in confident filmmaking and unmistakeable in aesthetic – they are bold, imaginative, dynamic affairs. Mind you, there was a downside for creative people who were working under Run Run Shaw’s tight and all-seeing direction at his studios, and I discuss this in the book as well. But the aspirations to make great entertainment were always there, and I’m glad I thought of a title that could pay tribute to that.