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.

The Illustrations

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.

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Rebecca’s illustration inspired by Come Drink with Me.

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.

The Process.

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.

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Interview on Bedrock Games Podcast

Brendan from Bedrock Games recently 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 blog and podcast is really well worth checking out.

If you want to listen to the podcast, then you can find it here.

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Brendan is a big fan of Cheng Pei Pei, as I am. This illustration by Rebecca Stewart was for the chapter about ‘Come Drink With Me’ in my book.

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.