News and An Opportunity

Opportunity to win my book

The excellent Kung Fu Movie Guide website is giving away a copy of my book as their monthly prize. All you have to do is sign up for their excellent monthly e-mail bulletin here.

The Kung Fu Movie Guide is a treasure trove of articles, reviews, and a podcast. They are great for keeping up with the latest news about the genre and essential for any serious fan of the genre.

Support the Gutterthon

I was happy and proud to contribute a copy of Ask for the Moon as a reward in this month’s Gutterthon. The book has already gone as a reward but, if you like “thoughtful writing about disreputable art”, you should still definitely head on over to the Gutterthon and support it. The Cultural Gutter is chockers full of great writing about all kinds of genres – sci-fi, horror, Bollywood, comics, fantasy, videogames, romance. There are many great rewards still on offer for the next 24 days, and you will have the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes out of supporting a website to pay its contributing writers.

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Artwork by Rebecca Stewart

Start Dis Podcast Interview Coming Up

Later this month I will be interviewed for the Start Dis Podcast, which describes itself thusly: “The StartDis podcast is for people of conscience, who value education and who love to learn a little bit about everything.”

The “little bit” I will be contributing to the interview will be musings about the nature of creativity, using the activities of Shaw Brothers filmmakers as an example. Stay tuned for further details.

And speaking about podcasts, you can check out an interview I did for the Bedrock Games podcast. Due to internet problems on the day the audio quality isn’t great, but I really enjoyed responding to the thoughtful questions I was asked. More information here.

Follow us

By the way, if you are on twitter, you can follow me at either @DangerousMere or @FuThoughts. The Kung Fu Movie Guide can be found at @KFMovieGuide, Cultural Gutter at @CulturalGutter, Brendan Davis (and his blog and podcast) at @Bedrockgames, and the Start Dis podcast at @StartDisPodcast.

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Why Choose Innovation as a Theme?

“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.

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Image by Rebecca Stewart

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.

Why ‘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

Someone recently asked me why I called my book Ask for the Moon.

By Rebecca Stewart
Cover design by Rebecca Stewart

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 Stewart had 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.

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.