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.

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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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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.