New blog on 36styles.com

I was recently honoured to be invited to do some guest blogging for the 36 Styles website.

My first blog is about Chor Yuen’s wuxia pian ‘Roving Swordsman’.

“I was almost fooled!” ripostes Feng Rusung (played by Kwan Fung), one of the good guys in Chor Yuen’s Roving Swordsman, when confronted by one of many sleights of hand that take place during the course of this film’s plot. While it is a throwaway line in one of the early scenes, it is also apt, for Roving Swordsman is full of trickery and deceit as its protagonists and antagonists try to outwit each other.

To read the rest of the blog, and check out 36 Styles great new website, go here.

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Researching Shaw Brothers

One of the most challenging, but, paradoxically, most enjoyable aspects of writing Ask for the Moon was conducting research. Out of respect for both my readers and the filmmakers about whom I was writing, I took great care in assembling reliable information on which to base the stories and ideas I was presenting.

As a long-time fan of martial arts movies I always knew where to start, having parsed relevant books in the State Library of Victoria as well as enjoying online resources such as web archives, blogs, and YouTube clips. As a producer and disseminator of cultural product, Shaw Brothers Organisation has had a huge impact on countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and others in South East Asia. Therefore, when I settled on Shaw Brothers as a suitable subject for my book I knew that I would be able to access a range of materials to help me with my research. Scholars writing about culture, filmmaking technique, history, geopolitics, and business practice in Asian cinema have written many learned texts from which I could draw. Because Shaws was so effective at marketing, there is a huge range of archival promotional material extant and available as well. Academics, fans, entertainment writers, film critics, and ex Shaw’s employees have all created or curated material – blogs, books, articles, audio visual clips and interviews, collections of ephemera, memoirs – that can be easily accessed and explored.

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Lobby card for ‘The Delightful Forest’ (1972)

A special boon was the work of Chinese scholars, film writers, or the cast and crew of the films themselves. For an English speaker like myself, the cultural nuances articulated in these particular materials were especially valuable.

Overall, I tried to access information from a healthy range of credible sources and, if possible, to use more than one source to verify facts.

In the book itself, the bibliography is six pages long and I have included 326 end notes (possibly I went overboard…) In this blog, I have included a short list of my very favourite research materials. Listed below are items that furnished me with the special ‘a-ha!’ moments or were essential in some other way.

Articles, papers, and blogs:

‘Moguls of the Chinese Cinema: The Story of the Shaw Brothers in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, 1924-2002’ by Stephanie Po-Yin Chung is an excellent paper that charts the history of the growth of Shaw Organisation from its earliest days, and discusses the familial business culture that influenced Runme and Run Run Shaw. It can be found in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul. 2007), pp. 665-682.

Another good paper to read for information about Shaw Brothers’ early history is ‘The Shaw Brothers’ Wuxia Pian: An Early Identity and Business-Cultural Connection for the Chinese in Malaya’ by Ngo Sheau Shi. This paper helped me understand the nostalgic allure of early Shaw Brothers’ swordplay films for homesick Chinese expats. It can be found in Kajian Malaysia, Vol. 29, Supp. 1, (2011), pp. 75-93.

Books:

I simply love the way that David Bordwell writes about Hong Kong cinema. He combines the glee of a true fan with the intellectual rigour and deep expertise of an academic. His Planet Hong Kong is a fantastic read not just for historical fact and analysis of film making technique for Shaws’ films, but other Hong Kong cinema as well.

Bordwell’s blog is well worth a look too. I found his blogs ‘Another Shaw production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong’ (October 2009) and ‘Lion, dancing: Lau Kar-Leung’ (2 July 2013) to contain excellent commentary on filmmaking technique.

In my book I wanted to focus on some of Shaws’ important individual filmmakers. Luckily, memoirs exist for a couple of them. Chang Cheh’s A Memoir (translated by Teri Chan and Agnes Lam. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2004) seems to be out of print but I was able to track down a copy of it in a library. Ching-ling Kwok and Grace Ng’s Oral History Series 3 Director Chor Yuen was available from its publisher’s (Hong Kong Film Archive) website.

Poshek Fu has edited and contributed to China Forever: the Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (University of Illinois, 2008) which contains an interesting array of perspectives on Shaws. And, of course, anything by Stephen Teo on Hong Kong cinema will always furnish useful insights and information.

Web based materials:

The Hong Kong Movie Database is a great sprawling website created by fans of Kong Kong Cinema. As well as reviews, it contains detailed lists of cast and crew for 1000s of films, and the filmographies of many of them. This was an invaluable reference tool.

A lovely web archive is the Linn Haynes Memorial Collection, which has digitised copies of Shaws’ own in-house magazines, printed in the 1970s and 1980s and distributed to fans worldwide. Just being able to ‘flick’ through the scanned pages of these publications gave me a great sense of how Shaws wanted to brand itself. Kudos to Shaolin Chamber 36 for hosting this important collection.

Oral histories provide important accounts of lived experience. Albert Odell, who worked for Shaws in the late 50s has a (candid) oral history stored on the National Archives of Singapore website.

Another interesting oral history – that of beloved kung fu movie star Gordon Liu – is contained on the Hong Kong Memory website. An English language translation of the transcription is available.

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Image by Rebecca Stewart

 

 

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.

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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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.