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
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“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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

Another Extract from ‘Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios’

Respectable Western critics have long been at a loss to explain why audiences and filmmakers are fascinated by Hong Kong film. From the start, these movies have off ended guardians of taste. ~ David Bordwell

“Oh, those stupid movies!”

I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of my conversational partner’s reaction. A middle-aged hipster poet, he was not someone I knew well. I had rocked on up to my friend’s Christmas party a few years ago and, having no one else to talk to, had fallen into conversation with the bloke who happened to be sitting next to me on the couch. As you do, at Christmas parties. One thing led to another – the usual pleasant conversational fare was being churned through at the expected rate – when I mentioned, as I invariably do at some stage of any conversation I participate in no matter what the context or setting, that I was a huge fan of kung fu movies.

This was all a few years back, so maybe this chap said “silly” instead of “stupid”, but there was no doubt that his knee-jerk reaction was one of dismissive contempt. I was genuinely puzzled. The last DVD I had watched before trotting along to that party had been Wilson Yip’s magisterial Ip Man (2008 starring Donnie Yen at his most elegantly patrician) and my head was full of that. This film is exceptionally good; it is, at one and the same time, a hand-on-heart action-packed kung fu movie and an art-house film that transcends its own genre. It is an example of how a universally appealing story and characters, great acting, direction, and production values are not mutually exclusive to films in either genre. Ip Man was nominated for a slew of awards at the 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival and other Asian film festivals and even won some, including best film and best action choreography. It is damned classy, and about as far from the idea of a ham-fisted chopsocky as you can get.

But when I mentioned kung fu movies, this guy didn’t think of an award-winning film. He thought of something cornier, shoddier, more risible. And something vague: when I asked him exactly which kung fu movies he was thinking of, he looked embarrassed and then confessed that he had never actually watched one, of any stripe, the whole way through. “I saw half a Bruce Lee once…”

I hate Bruce Lee flicks, something which confounds Bruce Lee fans who all seem to need to lie down in a dark room after I tell them this. But the kung fu movie genre covers a vast range of sub-genres that can differ widely in aesthetic, style, and tone. Don’t like the self-conscious macho stylings of Bruce? Try the luscious romanticism of Chor Yuen’s swordplay films, with their gloriously coloured costumes, extravagant sets and dancelike high-flying action. Find them a bit saccharine? Then take on the mischief of a cracking good Lau Kar Leung film, with baroque action choreography and fun pot-boiling plots.

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

Chopsocky flicks have a dire reputation among most of us Westerners. The average man on the street thinks of badly made films, peopled by corny actors in silly wigs, gurning their way through formulaic plots, overlaid with dubbing so bad that it’s funny. The problem is that it is too easy, at this remove in time and place, to fall into the trap of viewing these movies with what film academics like Leon Hunt have identified as the (often white) ‘camp gaze’ – to allow cultural artefacts from different cultures some cachet only because they are different, exotic or somehow ‘other’. This is a distorted way of viewing films from other cultures and can lead to a limiting belief that ‘our’ way of filmmaking is the ultimate way, the only way. Any deviations in aesthetics or modes of performance or storytelling are seen as failures and only valued as entertainment because of their wrongness or risibility.

“Their (Hong Kong films’) audacity, their slickness, and their unabashed appeal to emotion have won them audiences throughout the world. ‘It is all too extravagant, too gratuitously wild,’ a New York Times reviewer complained of an early kung fu import; now the charge looks like a badge of honour. These outrageous entertainments harbour remarkable inventiveness and careful craftsmanship… The best of them are not only crowd pleasing but also richly and delightfully artful.” ~ David Bordwell

Of course, the martial arts movie genre has crappy movies in it; all schools of cinema do. But what many Westerners don’t understand – are not given the opportunity to see – are the many “delightfully artful” films that exist in the genre as well.

Shaw Brothers played an important part in producing movies that demonstrated that the martial arts genre can produce a lot of decent looking mainstream entertainment as well as classy art-house films. Sir Run Run Shaw set up a production process that was geared towards churning out films that were crowd pleasing. As a businessman, he wanted bums on seats and healthy box-office returns. But as a businessman who loved film and, I think, genuinely believed in it as an expression of cultural values (defined, by Sir Run Run, as the cultural values he believed in, mind), it was also important to him that Shaw Brothers films exhibited “careful craftsmanship”. Shaw Brothers’ Movietown was set up to provide the resources to support this. In this book, I look at a few directors who were able to go further in that they not only gave Sir Run Run the nicely made crowd-pleasers he wanted but were able to manipulate the resources available to them to make films that were also “richly and delightfully artful”.

It is the tension between the artful and the operational that I want to unpack in this book. The challenge that always faced me as an arts manager – balancing the needs of the artists and the needs of the bean-counters and paper-pushers – is a challenge writ large in the case study of Shaw Brothers Studios. Examining this challenge gives deep insight into the nature of fostering innovation in an organisation.

~ From Chapter 1 of ‘Ask for the Moon’ by Meredith Lewis. Image by Rebecca Stewart.

If you would like to buy ‘Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios’, please go here. For more information about the book, read the media release. And you can find another extract from the book here.

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