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.

14
Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
Advertisements

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.

BruceLeetheManandtheLegend+1973-7-b hkmdb
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.

RaymondChowManWai-8-b hkmdb
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.

Facebook banner1

Rest in Peace Yueh Hua

“He’s gorgeous!” said my Mum, boggling at Yueh Hua playing the titular role in The Lizard. “He’s warm, funny, and he’s really really good.”

The Lizard
Yueh Hua in The Lizard. Image from hkmdb.com

The Lizard (1972) is a combination rom-com / kung fu / heist movie produced by Shaw Brothers Studios and directed by Chor Yuen. I could sense the surprise in my Mother’s voice. She is not a fan of martial arts movies – she can’t stand the violence – and only watched The Lizard to keep me company one evening. In fact, I chose the film when I realised that she would be sitting up with me as I thought she would enjoy the broad humour, the entertaining plot, the lovely sets and costumes, and the engaging performances. Like many Westerners who don’t watch martial arts movies, Mum was under the impression that the movie she would be viewing with me would be shoddily made with risible acting.

But Shaws didn’t set out to make bad movies, they were in the business of making crowd pleasers that reflected well on their brand and made the audience want to come back for more. They resourced productions like The Lizard with the best technical, and among the best human, resources available in Hong Kong at the time.

This included a large stable of talent, both behind and in front of the camera. One of Shaws’ most gifted stars was Yueh Hua. He died recently; you can read an obituary here.

Hua was a product of the Shaws system, as well as being one of its most reliable mainstays. His filmography boasts a remarkable 138 films, many of them for Shaw Brothers. His biography on The Hong Kong Movie Database states that he acted in about five films a year during the 1960s and 1970s. It must have been exhausting! However, the consistent work plus the opportunity to collaborate with other talented people would have given him a chance to refine his skills. In return, he proved to be a box office draw for Shaws, and a performer who could be relied upon to turn in consistently good, and often excellent, performances.

Working my way through Shaws catalogue of martial arts movies, one thing that has struck me about Hua was that he was a most versatile actor: at the start of his career he played the rambunctious Sun Wukong (King Monkey) in Ho Meng Hua’s trilogy of films inspired by Journey to the West as well as a seminal performance as the impish Fan Dapei / Drunken Knight in Come Drink with Me (1966). This made him a star and he then often played earnest leading men in films such as Killer Darts (1968) and The Shadow Whip (1971). I especially liked his portrayal of the jaded but morally robust hero in The Casino (1972) (he and co-star Lily Ho made a sexy couple in this film).

The Casino
Yueh Hua in The Casino. Picture from hkmdb.com

During his career he also branched out into playing important character roles, such as the mysterious Monk Wu Hua in Clans of Intrigue (1977) or an ambiguously aloof wandering swordsman in Heroes Shed No Tears (1980). His performance in Death Duel (1977) shows that he could also make an effective cold-eyed villain. Regardless of which part he played, he always distinguished himself through subtle performances and a strong screen presence.

YuehHua-96-b death duel
Yueh Hua in Death Duel. Picture from hkmdb.com

We are lucky that he left a wonderful legacy of films behind.

Thank you, Yueh Hua, and Rest in Peace.

I have written about Shaw Brothers Studios is ‘Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studios’. If you would like to buy the book, please go here.

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.

cropped-eventbrite-banner.jpg
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.