Enchanting Shadows: The Films of the Shaw Brothers

The recent passing of Chinese business tycoon Run Run Shaw was an event well covered by the world’s media. The obituaries for the 106 year old entrepreneur mainly concentrated on his business acumen and life-long philanthropy.

Like many successful industrialists, Run Run Shaw’s public largess would not have been possible without the profits generated by his companies, in particular the Shaw Brothers movie studio.

Run Run Shaw

Run Run Shaw

For more than a twenty year period from the late 1950s, Run Run Shaw helped create a film studio in Hong Kong which became so dominant that it kept Hollywood releases to a rump status in South East Asia.

In this post, I’ll try and give a more detailed background to the Shaw Brothers studio and highlight a number of its better known and not so well known films. I’ll also focus on the studio’s stars and directors who produced a body of work which is now becoming famous internationally. And on a contemporary note, we’ll see how the digital age has given the Shaw Brothers film library a new lease on life and, potentially, an audience reach greater than anything Run Run Shaw ever envisaged during the company’s most prosperous years.

The Past

Run Run Shaw’s public persona of a kindly, soft-spoken accountant was at odds with a reputation as one of Asia’s wiliest and toughest businessmen. His deal-making and long-term planning were legendary and tied to a rigorous self-belief that kept him in front of the pack for most of his life.

Today, the Shaw Brothers film company would be described as being a vertically integrated business. From script idea through film production to cinema exhibition, the company controlled and finessed all aspects of the film-making process. Run Run Shaw and his brother based this business model on Hollywood’s famous studio system during its halcyon years from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

In the hothouse film-making environment of the Shaw Brothers studio, directors such as Li Han Hsiang, Chang Cheh, King Hu and Lau Kar-Leung were developing film styles and a cinema language which continues to influence film-makers worldwide.

Run Run Shaw was born in 1907 in the port city of Ningbo, North Eastern China, but he grew up in Shanghai. He was the second youngest of seven children, affectionately known as “Brother Six”.  With a knack for commerce, in 1924 he rejected a cushy position in the family textile company and moved to Singapore where his elder brother, Run Me, had set up a film distribution-exhibition business, and within a decade had screened the first sound film shown in Hong Kong. With the elder sibling in charge of studio finances, they made a formidable team.

A thriving trade in movie theatres and amusement parks came to a halt with World War 2, which found both brothers trapped in Singapore and forced to screen propaganda for the Japanese.

After the war, the profitable mainland China market was closed to the Shaws with the Communist takeover, and by the mid-1950s Chinese film exhibition in South East Asia was being menaced by the Hollywood juggernaut. In 1957, Run Run Shaw took control of a small Hong Kong production company and with money to spend he was ready to take on the Hollywood threat.

He also made the decision that Shaw Brothers films would be made in the Mandarin language, explaining this as “to go global the Shaw Brothers studio has to use Mandarin as its business language.” This cashed-up fifty year old executive had big plans for his new company.

Act 1

Lin Dai in The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959)

Lin Dai in The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959)

The financial foundation of the Shaw Brothers movie studio was built on a series of filmed traditional Huangmei (yellow plum) operas, a trend very popular in the late 1950s. The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) is an intense Cinderella-styled story which has Hong Kong’s then biggest star, Lin Dai, as a commoner swept off her feet by an amorous prince. Working with young director Li Han Hsiang, it was to be one of the Jade screen’s finest collaborations. To see Lin Dai scorned and abandoned alone in a shadow-filled forest, pleading to the night for the return of her royal lover, is to witness one of the great scenes in Chinese cinema. It was a huge success and the beginning of of a remarkable career for director Li, who was to become revered by fellow film-makers and his movies adored by Chinese audiences internationally. His historical epics are particularly favoured for their drama and attention to detail, and the Empress Dowager series is probably his best known.

The Huangmei opera adaptations continued to be popular with audiences, and the Shaw Brothers studio produced the biggest and the best. The Love Eterne, based on the folktale The Butterfly Lovers, was an immense hit at the box-office in 1963 and starred the much loved Cantonese opera singer Ivy Ling Po. Lin Dai also starred in Beyond the Great Wall (1964), a story of courage and self-sacrifice within a royal family facing wartime hostilities.

A fact well hidden from the public at the time was that Lin Dai’s singing was dubbed in most of her movies for the Shaw Brothers. Studio contract singer Jing Ting was the voice behind all of Lin Dai’s Huangmei opera films. The studio regularly dubbed the screen songs of their famous singing stars. But with one major exception, Ivy Ling Po — probably because most Chinese viewers were familiar with her singing before she began a film career.

Li Ching in The Mermaid (1965)

Li Ching in The Mermaid (1965)

The screen appeal of the Huangmei operas began to wane by the mid-1960s, and The Mermaid is a true oddity from 1965. An opulent Shaw Brothers production of an underwater opera (The Beautiful Carp Spirit) featuring Ivy Ling Po and newcomer Li Ching — and written by Chang Cheh (?!). If anything, the submerged sequences seem to predate Hollywood’s The Fantastic Voyage.

The Shaw Brothers studio at Clearwater Bay on the outskirts of Kowloon rates as one of the 20th century’s great movie studios. Construction started in 1958 and was finished by 1965, comprising twelve sound stages and sixteen permanent outdoor sets, including a plaster reproduction of the Great Wall of China. It also boasted a costume department holding 80,000 items; the largest of its type in existence in the 1960s.

The Clearwater Bay studio was a movie-making city where the company’s 1500 employees lived and worked a six day week. Run Run Shaw and his senior executives were all-powerful; careers could be made and unmade. On occasion it seemed a feudal way of life, but overall talent and creativity were certainly rewarded. At its peak in 1967 the studio produced 43 films in a year, with a new feature going into production every 9 days.

Both Shaw siblings and their executives were often seen on movie sets and they followed the progress of their films closely. Unlike the Hollywood studios of today, you can be confident that the Shaw Brothers didn’t allocate fifty percent of a film’s budget for marketing. Every film released by the studio was specifically aimed at a particular demographic — and Chinese audiences responded enthusiastically.

The bottom line result may have been the overriding imperative for the business, but quality films which attracted large audiences was the basis for the studio’s longevity.

During the 1960s, Run Run Shaw was allowing time for the studio’s best directors to watch and study Japanese and American genre films, in particular samurai and western pictures. Chang Cheh freely admits to radically changing his editing style after seeing Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch.

On occasion, the Shaw Brothers would hire Korean and Japanese film-makers to work for them, with sometimes surprising results. Korean director Jeng Cheong Woh made the martial arts pic The King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death) which became the highest grossing ever Shaws Brothers release in the USA. Japanese film-maker Inoue Umetsugu turned out to be an excellent director of contemporary Chinese musicals and created the famous 1960s hits Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody. Both film-makers were prolific directors in their own countries, who, at times, brought a fresh perspective to the Hong Kong studio films.

Act 2

The mid-1960s saw the studio begin to produce more martial arts-kung fu movies with the rise of film-makers like Chang Cheh and King Hu. Run Run Shaw had encouraged this change of direction and was rewarded in 1967 with the outstanding box office success of Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Chang described this new visceral screen violence as a return to the “jin gang” — the virile male hero. For the previous fifteen years, Chinese cinema in South East Asia had revolved around womens’ pictures and female stars. Chang was determined to change the status quo by making films for a younger, male audience. As it happened, the latter was the fastest growing demographic in Hong Kong. King Hu also reveled in this new found environment for martial arts cinema and his 1966 pic Come Drink With Me, starring Cheng Pei Pei and Yueh Hua, became the screen model for women warriors in the wuxia genre.

Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink With Me (1966)

Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink With Me (1966)

King Hu left the Shaw Brothers after Come Drink With Me and went on to make his greatest martial arts films in the late 1960s and early 70s in Taiwan, which included his three hour masterpiece A Touch of Zen. In later years, the director would say his films from the 1970s would not have been possible without the skills and experience he had acquired whilst working at the Shaw Brothers studio: a comment that would be echoed by fellow directors Li Han Hsiang and Chang Cheh, who both departed the Shaw Brothers at different times during their careers.

The 1970s introduced a more globally-focused Shaw Brothers studio as the martial arts-kung fu films became all dominant in the company’s production rosters. This was a commercial strategy to establish the studio internationally, including the occasional co-productions with European and American film companies.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)

The movies were mostly underwhelming and occasionally embarrassing: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a Shaw Brothers / Hammer (UK) co-production filmed in Hong Kong, which contributed the sunniest looking Transylvania in horror film history.

As we all know, hindsight is a wonderful sense to indulge — as it is never wrong — and will always show the correct way of doing something. This brings me now to the early 1970s, where the Shaw Brothers film business was being buffeted by the winds of change. Two outsiders and their direct involvement with Run Run Shaw were to have long-term ramifications for the studio. They were: the refusal of Run Run Shaw to employ the Hong Kong born, American TV actor Bruce Lee, and the rapid promotion in the organisation of nightclub singer Mona Fong, who became a close personal and business confidant of Run Run Shaw.

Longtime Shaw Brothers senior executive Raymond Chow couldn’t convince either of the Shaw siblings that Bruce Lee was important for the future of the company. In frustration he left the Shaw Brothers and set up his own film company, Golden Harvest, and promptly signed Lee up to a multi-picture deal.

Bruce Lee (who else?) in The Big Boss (1971)

Bruce Lee (who else?) in The Big Boss (1971)

Bruce Lee’s first film for Golden Harvest was The Big Boss, and its release in 1971 marked the beginning of a golden age for the Golden Harvest company.

Personally, I think the Shaw brothers made the right decision by not employing Lee. “Two tigers on one mountain” would have summed up the working relationship between Run Run Shaw and Bruce Lee, and would likely have led to an early and unhappy split.

On a local level the action pictures were still doing good business, with films from star directors like Chang Cheh (The Assassin), Chu Yuan (The Magic Blade) and rising star Lau Kar-Leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin).

Chu Yuan had a big hit in Hong Kong and Europe with Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, an extra-spicy mix of sex and violence which tells the lurid tale of a young virgin, Ai Nu, sold as a sex slave to a Ming dynasty brothel. It takes ten years, but eventually she has her revenge in the most graphic, limb-lopping fashion. What shocked audiences in 1972 was the way Ai Nu ruthlessly exploits her sexuality to bring about her retribution.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)

Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti in Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)

Intimate Confessions contained particularly powerful performances from Lily Ho as the courtesan and Betty Pei Ti as the lesbian madam of the Four Seasons Brothel. The movie looks an absolute treat, as shown in a Goya-inspired moment with snowflakes drifting through filtered light, gently landing on a bloodstained body.

Chu Yuan and star Ti Lung also made the popular “Clan” films, based on the traditional Gu Long novels, which were labyrinthine stories about ever-warring groups within the martial arts fantasy world. Magnificent sets masked a dangerous, doppelganger jianghu, where beauty often led to treachery and loyalty was a commodity readily traded. Death could be as sudden as a poison dart or a blade in the dark. The series is at its most accessible and entertaining with Killer Clans and The Roving Swordsman.

One of Chu’s final films for the Shaw Brothers was Descendant of the Sun, an imaginative take on Superman as the “fairy in the golden garb.”  Colorful sets, a surfeit of early 80s special effects and a solar eclipse which brings out the dead — all make for a total hoot!

Fight choreographer turned director Lau Kar-Leung had been trained as a traditional martial artist and his ability to put these training and fighting sequences on screen was second-to-none, as seen in films like Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin. The latter features the murderous monk Pai Mei, made famous by Hollywood Shaw Brothers buff Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill 2.

I’ve always been surprised that veteran Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng Hua has been overlooked for so long by people writing about Chinese cinema. He had an intuitive understanding of film genres, visually and emotionally, and he was a bankable film-maker. But it’s how well his films stand up today that sets him apart from his film-making contemporaries. Aside from Li Han Hsiang, I can’t name a Shaw Brothers director who created such great films across so many genres.

The Monkey Goes West (1966)

The Monkey Goes West (1966)

Ho Meng Hua began his career as an assistant director at the Shaw Brothers studio in 1955. He cut his teeth on genre films, beginning in 1958 with a Huangmei opera, Red Lantern. Ho had made nineteen films before he was offered the plum job in 1966 of directing The Monkey Goes West: a little gem of a movie which tracks the misadventures of the Monkey trickster from Sino mythology (Journey to the West). It saw three sequels all made by Ho and each as good as the original. The movies are highlighted by beautiful set design and clever animation.

Ho also excelled with martial arts films and The Lady Hermit is one of his best. It was to be Cheng Pei Pei’s last film for the Shaw Brothers — and what a way to go out! A strong story, likeable characters and a final thirty minutes which plays like a bloody mix of whip-cracking women, temples of doom, rope bridges to hell, the “Claws of Death” plus an unstoppable evil tyrant. Why this film has never received the attention it fully deserves is beyond me!

The Lady Hermit (1971)

The Lady Hermit (1971)

During the early 1970s, Ho slipped effortlessly into the exploitation genre and made two of the classic titles in this category. In 1973, he helmed a slab of 1970s urban sleaze titled The Kiss of Death, starring Taiwanese actress Chen Ping. The movie could have easily been retitled Death Wish in Hot Pants. The outright misogyny is leavened by elements of very dark humour, i.e. razor-edged playing cards used like ninja stars.

At the more tongue-in-cheek end of the exploitation spectrum, Ho then made The Mighty Peking Man (1977), a King Kong rip-off on a micro-budget. The film spends more time with the mostly near-naked blonde starlet Evelyn Kraft than the marauding mandrill who eventually destroys much of Hong Kong.

The original HK poster for The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

The original HK poster for The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

It’s cheap and cheesy and well worth spending money to see. It’s hard to believe (as far as I know) that this flick never turned up on Australian drive-in screens in the late 1970s.

Director Ho left the Shaw Brothers in 1980 and continued to make films in Taiwan. He died in Hong Kong in 2009.

The late 1970s saw the Shaw Brothers move to a more urban and grittier type of film-making. Movies were being made away from the studio and the city-based crime-drama became a favourite, with titles such as Brothers from the Walled City, Big Bad Sis, Men from the Gutter and The Criminals, the latter being a series of real-life crime anthologies.

This very dark and nihilistic class of film could be seen as a reaction to the lightweight and popular comedies which were being released by Golden Harvest. Raymond Chow had been pursuing new talent especially from Hong Kong TV, and finds like the Hui brothers produced big box-office returns in crowd-pleasing pics like The Private Eyes and Games People Play.

Chow was also developing the screen careers of such rising stars as Angela Mao, Sammo Hung, Nora Miao, Sylvia Chang, Yuen Biao, Richard Ng… and a struggling martial arts actor named Jackie Chan.

Director Lau Kar-leung in Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)

Director Lau Kar-leung in Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)

The late 70s saw Chan’s career blossom with his kung fu comedies, which were soon changing the face of Hong Kong cinema. The Shaw Brothers returned fire with their own kung fu comedies. But these pics were hamstrung by their lack of “new” star power; this was disappointing, because a film like Lau Kar-Leung’s Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979) was a far superior kung fu comedy to anything Jackie Chan made during this period.

Act 3

By the early 1980s, the studio was under pressure, financially and creatively, with a steady drift of film-making talent to Taiwan or better paid positions with the Golden Harvest company. Run Run Shaw was also devoting more time in developing his small screen interests with the TVB television network, which he had established in 1967.

The Clearwater Bay complex was still busy and between 1980 and 1983 averaged just under thirty theatrical release per year. But for the first time in its existence, the Shaw Brothers movie business seemed unable to cope with changing times and serious competition. As a result, budgets were cut, remakes were encouraged and a much younger, less critical audience was targeted.

But one film slipped through the cracks. Lau Kar-Leung’s 1983 martial arts pic Eight Diagram Pole Fighter was like a furious ode to a once-great movie studio. The film was produced by Mona Fong and is considered by many aficionados as the greatest martial arts movie ever made.

Gordon Liu in Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)

Gordon Liu in Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is set in the Sung dynasty and is a Shakespearean-like tale of betrayal, revenge and redemption which follows the fate of a family of royal warriors who are all but wiped out by advancing Tartar soldiers. The two survivors suffer a grueling descent into madness and despair, emotions quite likely fueled by the off-screen death of star Alexander Fu Sheng in a car accident. Rewrites gave Gordon Liu and Kara Hui lead roles in this superb character-driven action movie, which features a pole fighting finale of the bloodiest proportions. Not a kung fu pratfall in sight — and Lau Kar-Leung’s finest hour!

You would think the closure of the Shaw Brothers film studio in 1986 would be the beginning of a well-earned retirement for the then 79 year old movie mogul. Not so! Run Run Shaw turned his full attention toward the TVB company, which under his direct control became the dominant television network in Hong Kong and the major producer of Hong Kong’s TV programmes.

Through TVB, Run Run Shaw created the future stars of the Cantonese film industry for at least the next twenty years. The following is a list of prominent Chinese actors who began their careers with TVB: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Carol “Do Do” Cheng, Stephen Chow, Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung, Cecilia Yip, Carina Lau, Louis Koo, Lau Ching-Wan, Miriam Yeung, Ray Liu, Francis Ng, Sandra Ng, Alex Fong, Wu Chien-Lien, Elaine Jin, Damian Lau — and, of course, many more. The vast majority of TVB actors eventually ended up working on Golden Harvest films.

TVB LogoIn 1988, the Clearwater Bay studio became the new home for the TVB company and its production headquarters.

The Shaw Brothers film company has produced a handful of movies since the studio’s demise, though unfortunately a burgeoning film-making partnership with director Johnnie To was to peter out by the late 1990s. Their best known film in the past decade was Lau Kar-Leung’s much awaited return to the silver screen with Drunken Monkey in 2003. A competent film, but by no means a great one.

I have fond memories of sitting in the 1800-seat Isis theatre in Hong Kong in 1997 and watching Corey Yuen’s martial arts pic Hero. To see the Shaw Brothers logo glitter on the big screen, accompanied by the familiar drum roll and trumpet stanza, momentarily sent my mind enjoyably back to another era.

The Present

On the plus side of the digital age, cinema culture has been treated surprisingly well. The Shaw Brothers films are a good example of this: as the movies become older, their audience reach grows in numbers and in appreciation.

Celestial PicturesThe Shaw Brothers film library is a treasure trove of Chinese genre cinema from the 1950s-1980s. In 2000, Malaysian telco magnate T. Ananda Krishnan bought the Shaw Brothers library and between 2003 and 2008 nearly 800 titles were released on DVD via the Hong Kong-based Celestial Pictures. The films had been restored with now sparkling widescreen images, remastered sound and state-of-the-art DVD transfers. Apart from their original theatrical debuts, many of these classic movies have never looked or sounded better.

Through Celestial the Shaw Brothers collection has been available from DVD stores and online for over ten years. More recently, their continuing distribution sees a growing selection of Shaw titles now downloadable from Apple’s iTunes service. Free-to-air and cable television broadcasters regularly showcase Shaw Brothers films throughout Asia, Europe and America. And major international film festivals and leading cultural organisations routinely programme Shaw Brothers retrospectives.

In 1998 at 91 years of age, Brother Six was more conscious of the future than many around him. In that year he began laying the building blocks of what was to become the vanguard of the company’s expansion into China. It was the construction of a high-tech film studio in Hong Kong’s New Territories, at the Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate. Run Run Shaw and his partners saw this new facility as being the most modern and sophisticated in Asia.

Once the project became public knowledge it was immediately dubbed the “Clearwater Bay for the 21st century.”

The venture was beset with problems and within five years Run Run Shaw and his TVB company had assumed 95 per cent ownership of the project. In 2008, the new studio complex was officially opened with 110,000 square metres dedicated to production and post-production services.

Three years ago, Run Run Shaw sold his entire share holding in TVB, a stake which totaled 6.26 billion Hong Kong dollars. He was then the only surviving Shaw brother, and with his legacy secured it was the right time to make way for the next generation of entrepreneurs to test their commercial mettle.

The TVB company describes the Tseung Kwan studio as being “the film-making gateway to China.”  It’s a sentiment I’m certain the late Run Run Shaw would have very much endorsed.

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