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The Heroic Ones

“The history of The Heroic Ones gives an impression of magnitude.”

Thus, states director Chang Cheh about his movie The Heroic Ones, an action-packed saga about a clan of warriors in historic war-torn China, in his memoirs. The Heroic Ones was also a title I considered co-opting for the book I wrote about the people who worked at the studios where the film was made – Shaw Brothers Studios as I wanted a title that spoke about the adventures of a group of people. Now, my book is not about people involved in a war or a fight; it is about people engaged in a business and creative enterprise, namely the making of martial arts movies. But the history of Shaw Brothers Studios and their filmmakers is such a fascinating one, and quite epic in scale, that I think it could be seen as an adventure in its own right.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Chang goes onto say about his cast of characters in The Heroic Ones:

“It is about how a bunch of relatively barbaric people who are loyal, forthright, crude and brave… become embroiled in a culture so ripe that it has begun to rot.”

The real-life characters in my book were not “relatively barbaric”; the Shaw brothers and their directors were well educated and learned. Whether or not they exhibited the qualities of loyalty, forthrightness, crudity or courage varied from individual to individual. But culture certainly played a part in their organisation’s story, as it does in the story of any enterprise.

“They succeed because of their unique qualities, yet they are also victims of the conspiracies of ‘civilised men’… bringing themselves to their own tragic downfall by slaughtering each other.” ~ Chang Cheh

No one in the Shaws Organisation slaughtered anyone else – they left that kind of shenanigan to the characters in their films. And it can’t be said that Shaws had a tragic downfall. While it’s true that they ceased film production in the 1980s, they then morphed into other avenues of business and indeed had always maintained different business interests throughout their history. Shaws has always been willing to diversify. But the successes of Shaws and their filmmakers did come about because of unique qualities, including the ability to adapt and to innovate.

I have a confession to make: I don’t actually like the movie The Heroic Ones. I find the characters a bit too crude and barbaric; I can’t engage with them and find it hard to care what happens to them as they busily get on with doing horrible things to each other.

So, it took me by surprise when my brain suggested to me that this could be the name of a chapter. But I entertained the idea. I’d wanted a title that referenced the gloriously over the top films themselves, and a reading of Shaws’ achievements does give “an impression of magnitude” that the title suggests. Furthermore, The Heroic Ones is about a group of people – a family and their retainers – and how the dynamic between them shifts and changes as they respond to external challenges. My book is about a family (a group of brothers) and their retainers (the filmmakers who worked for them) doing the same thing. The glaring difference between the characters in the film and the real-life characters in the Shaws adventure are their fates: the characters in the film seem to be caught up in a kind of nihilism; they are destined to churn through various macho tropes that inexorably lead them into danger, conflict and, for most of them, gory deaths. The Shaws and some of their filmmakers, on the other hand, had a spectacular talent for creating entertaining films that saw them prosper.

In the end I went with another title for the book… Why I did this will be the subject of my next blog.

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.

Ask for the Moon – Media Release

“Action Every Minute! Tension Every Hour!” a slogan on Shaw Brothers Studios’ The Invincible Fist trailer promises. Shaw Brothers’ kung fu movies were lavish action-packed spectacles, but the story of their making is also epic, and one of twists and turns.

“An Adventure in A Million!” (The Golden Swallow)

In the 1960s, Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios revolutionised martial arts filmmaking. Movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw developed a production model to churn out handsome blockbusters quickly and cheaply. An assembly line approach kept his filmmakers busy – they made over 1000 films in two decades – but access to an extraordinary pool of resources meant they could “ask for the moon”. This book is a case study exploring how a brilliant, driven entrepreneur and his audaciously creative filmmakers conducted a bold experiment in business and movie-making innovation.

“A Result of Intensive Research” (Five Element Ninjas), Ask for the Moon will provide “An Unusual and Dramatic Tale” (Golden Swallow) for chop socky tragics, pop culture aficionados, and students of business model innovation alike.

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“Female Knight’s Exciting Exploits!” (Come Drink with Me)

Author Meredith Lewis has more than 30 years’ experience as a performer, choreographer, trainer, events manager, and project manager in the arts, tertiary, and community sectors. In writing this book she has drawn on her experiences of working with creative teams to produce innovative content, and a long-standing passion for martial arts movies, which she has been writing about for the last 10 years.

“Don’t Miss It!” (Executioners from Shaolin)