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Sir Run Run Shaw (1907-2014): the legacy of the Shaw Brothers

With the sad passing of one of the most influential figures in global cinema, we look at the legacy his studio left behind and how relevant it still is today…

Sir Run Run Shaw passed away on 7th January 2014, the embodiment of an entrepreneur, a visionary and philanthropist; having been a part of the entertainment industry in some manner or another since the late 1920s when he joined his older brother Runme in Singapore marketing films to south-east Asia’s Chinese community. That grew into what would later become the Shaw Organisation, distributing and producing films in South East Asia; later becoming one of the world’s biggest multimedia organisations, founding the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, amusement parks and Hong Kong’s first free-to-air TV channel Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB).

Somehow it seems apt that Run Run clocked up an impressive 106 years on top of such an incredible achievement; a lifetime that stretches from the earliest days of cinema right into the fully digital era. And yet for many the name means nothing; even the Studio itself and the influential work produced there – still alive and now making films again – now seem largely forgotten. On BBC World News, being interviewed on Global with Jon Sopel with Philip Dodd (namedrop, namedrop, namedrop), it almost seemed insulting to see his work reduced to the title of ‘the Godfather of Kung Fu’, his work and influence was far beyond that.

But then if you want to see them, particularly in the UK, you might be lucky…

It’s hard to imagine the Shanghai that Run Run grew up in; youngest son of a wealthy textile merchant, at a point when the city was the financial hub of the world and dubbed the ‘Paris of the East, a New York of the West’, though it was far more decadent and exciting. The brothers entrepreneurial spirit had them constantly looking for opportunities across Asia and capitalising on others successes. It’s notable that the key to much of their success lay in distributing films; at its height the Shaw Organisation the company owned movie theatres throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Borneo, and this idea of owning both the film production and distribution direct to cinemas is a model still prevalent in film markets today.

Much of this time was spent moving operations around Asia, avoiding disruption caused by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and the Second World War. It wasn’t until 1958, after Run Run moved to Hong Kong permanently, that things finally settled when he established the Shaw Bothers. With an eye closely fixed on Hollywood – it was hardly coincidence the logo would quickly morph into the now iconic ‘SB’ so reminiscent of Warner Brothers – he set up a permanent production site where his actors worked and lived on 46 acres purchased from the government in Clearwater Bay, HK. Opened in 1961, Shaw Movietown was the world’s largest privately owned film-production outfit with around 1,200 workers shooting and editing films daily. Quickly productions displayed lavish set design and high quality production (but taking advantage of reusable sets). That wasn’t the only part of the model Shaw took from Hollywood; but in a world of studio contracted actors, a network of regulars would play very different roles between films; sometimes the hero, others the villain.

For his filmmakers, they too were encouraged to look beyond Chinese and even Asian cinema, such as the well-established markets in Japan, and towards the West for influence. Relatively early productions such as Enchanting Shadow (1960) by director Li Han-hsiang, reveal how filmmakers were looking at both Japanese ghost stories and gothic films from the British Hammer studio. Later Shaw would not be beyond nabbing promising directors from elsewhere, such as Japan’s Umetsugu Inoue (Man Who Causes a Storm, Hong Kong Nocturne, Apartment for Ladies) and South Korea’s Chung Chang-Hwa (titled ‘Cheng Chang-Ho’ on the opening credits to King Boxer).

Li Han-hsiang became one of the studio’s first star directors: the popularity achieved with The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) brought a series of Huangmei opera musicals that culminated in The Love Eterne (1963). Based on the Chinese folk legend of the Butterfly Lovers, it became a massive success around South East Asia. Li’s The Magnificent Concubine was entered into the 1962 Cannes Film Festival where it became the first Chinese-language film to win the Grand Prix for Best Interior Photography and Colour.

Li encouraged the career of one of the Shaw’s next leading lights, King Hu: playing a small role in The Kingdom and the Beauty, he graduated to assistant director on Love Eterne, before taking the lead on Second Sino-Japanese War film Sons of the Good Earth (1965). His next film, Come Drink With Me, would take the longstanding wuxia genre and turn it on its head, combining it with Japanese samurai film traditions with Western editing techniques.

Breaking from Shaw Brothers, Hu would go on to direct Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and Touch Of Zen (1971). Thirty years later, Ang Lee would cast Come Drink With Me’s lead star Cheng Pei-pei in a lead role for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in part a tribute to Hu’s work and his influence.

As we’ve previously discussed on easternKicks, perhaps the most iconic and influential Shaw Brothers film of all, One-Armed Swordsman, largely came out of an encouraged competitiveness between directors. Wanting to better Come Drink With Me, director Chang Cheh (Zhang Che) added themes of teenage rebellion, and what Chang described as ‘yanggang’, masculine themes and anti-heroes. Even Run Run Shaw himself considered it to be the first ‘kung fu’ movie; for the first time a martial arts expert would have to learn or relearn their abilities, with their perceived weaknesses becoming a distinct advantage. Such tenets appealing to Hong Kong’s working class audiences on many levels, and it was the first Hong Kong film to make HK$1 million at the local box office alone and made a star out of lead Jimmy Wang Yu.

Shaw Brothers continued to innovate. Comedy The House of 72 Tenants became the first big-budget film from a respected studio in Hong Kong to be recorded in Cantonese rather than Mandarin; its phenomenal success in 1973 (topping Enter The Dragon) shifting the balance for primary languages in Hong Kong film forever. But like any studio, Shaw Brothers followed what the audiences wanted, and became increasingly known for kung fu. As other directors entered the arena, they added to the tropes for which the genre would become known. Jimmy Wang Yu took the director’s reigns for The Chinese Boxer (1970), in which he also starred, which really brought hand-to-hand combat to the fore. Chung Chang-Hwa’s King Boxer took One-Armed Swordsman’s debilitating and augmented viciousness and special effects over the lead’s so-called ‘Iron Palm’ techniques. King Boxer was one of the first kung fu films to be released in the states, ahead of Bruce Lee. And Hollywood was finally starting to take notice.

The increasing importance of kung fu films saw fight choreographers take the directorial lead on films. Shaw’s leading action choreographer Lar Ke-leung took the lead on the comedy-led Spiritual Boxer; he then took kung fu to a whole new level of Zen with The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. Lead Gordon Liu enters a Shaolin monastery in search of training to use against Manchu forces, but to truly become a martial arts master, he learns he must leave his hatred behind. NOT your normal kung fu film. Gordon Liu would later take two lead roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

By the beginning of the 70s, the Shaw Brothers Studio was producing as much as 50 films a year, in a total that would tally well over 1,000. Run Run Shaw hadn’t just emulated the success of those Hollywood studios, he had outdone them several times over. But the studios decline was ahead, mainly led by the challenge from young upstart Golden Harvest. Ironically, most of the new studios staff had cut their teeth as employees of Shaw. From founder Raymond Chow, a former producer for Shaw, to future directors like Lo Wei, Yuen Woo-ping and Cheng Cheh’s former assistant director, John Woo. Stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung had appeared in roles as extras as children in Shaw Brothers films from the early 60s. There was no doubting away from Shaw’s more institutionalised presence, edgier work could be created.

Perhaps the nail in the coffin for Shaw Brothers was turning down Bruce Lee; returning home to Hong Kong after some success in American TV and films, and desperate to break free of typecasting and the perceived glass ceiling for Asian and Asian-American stars. (Which effectively Bruce Lee did at Golden Harvest.)

But that didn’t matter. Though it’s star waned, Shaw Brothers continued to produce successful movies way into the 1980s, though near the end the majority of their historical productions, almost entirely studio-bound, looked decidedly dated. From the formation of TVB in the late 60s a whole new generation would have their careers launched by Run Run Shaw. From directors like Wong Kar-wai to actors like Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung and singers such as Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui.

In the 70s Shaw looked to the West for new opportunities, co-producing too films with Hammer studios, Shatter and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but neither were particularly successful in terms of box office or critical acclaim. But Shaw continued to produce Western films, often uncredited, such as Blade Runner – easily one of the most important and influential Sci Fi films of the last 30-odd years.

Receiving a knighthood in 1977, Run Run Shaw has numerous honours to his name, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards and even a small asteroid belt named after him. Just last year he received the BAFTA Special Award for his outstanding contribution to cinema. To be reduced to the prime on Quentin Tarantino’s career somewhat trivialises his career (and as my fellow interviewee on the Global programme, Philip, so eloquently put it, Tarantino could not exist without Shaw Brothers).

Of course, in terms of action, the language Shaw helped create colours everything we’ve seen since; the combination of balletic, stylised action and violence, formed by the Peking Opera school tradition, together with tightly paced editing and visionary composition. But it’s so much more than that, from lush historical productions that touch counterparts in Chinese and even Korean cinema – for a long time Hong Kong films dominated what could be watched in South Korea.

At the dawn of the millennium, Celestial Pictures was formed 10 years ago by Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan with the intention of restoring and reviving the Shaw Brothers collection, with an aggressive releasing schedule that saw hundreds of films released on DVD in the first few years (though many are now out of print) and a channel in Hong Kong (Celestial Classic Movies) devoted to screening them. In the States, Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty brought some of the studios heavy hitters to DVD audiences, while smaller labels like FUNimation have helped fill in the gaps with quality versions of films that were previously only available dubbed, panned & scanned or badly edited (or all of the above).

In several territories, you can even download the films on demand, from vendors such as iTunes, but not here. In the UK our chances to catch Shaw Brothers classics are much slimmer. I remember discussing the Shaw Brothers films with distribution boss Steve Rivers (Hong Kong Legends and Cine-Asia) a few years back when he confided that the demand wasn’t high enough in the UK. ‘The purists may love all that type of product, but there are not enough of them to make that a viable acquisition,’ he admitted. We might choose to differ, but attempts by Momentum Pictures, who then owned UK rights, failed twice: firstly with a fairly minimal replication of the Celestial Pictures release; then a duplication of Dragon Dynasty’s all bells and whistles releases of The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and King Boxer. So maybe Steve had a point.

Much of the back catalogue can be enjoyed on YouTube, but at a small resolution that doesn’t do the productions justice. And that’s not withstanding the legalities of those films presence on YouTube. (We do not condone it, but let us access the films somehow?) Not every Shaw Brothers film is great, but it’s rare to find a film that doesn’t have some merit – even if it’s just cinematography or the quality of production. Run Run Shaw’s legacy is incredible, and it’s time we get to celebrate it…

Update: It now appears you can download a selection of Shaw Brothers movies from iTunes, even in the UK. Right now the selection is limited, with the emphasis on action and martial arts, meaning you can catch classics like 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, King Boxer, The Boxer From Shantung and The Five Venoms, alongside oddities The Super Inframan and The Mighty Peking Man, but very little from the 60s – not just missing out on period dramas but Huangmei operas and much more besides. Hopefully this will be filled in soon, and maybe with some other ‘hard to get’ titles that weren’t even released on DVD! (I’m thinking Payment In Blood for starters! 🙂

Andrew Heskins appeared on the BBC World News TV channel programme Global with Jon Sopel with Philip Dodd at 15:40 on Tuesday 7th January 2014.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
Read all posts by Andrew Heskins

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