This past Tuesday, January 7, 2014, Sir Run Run Shaw died in Hong Kong at the age of 106. Shaw was a mogul who built a movie empire in Asia, with the Shaw Bros. movie production and distribution company, based in Hong Kong, as its centerpiece. The company was Hong Kong’s biggest movie studio from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, when it shifted its focus from movies to television, creating numerous popular series under the company name, TVB, the dominant television network in Hong Kong, with distribution throughout Asia. Shaw patterned his movie studio in the style of the old Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. and MGM. His counterparts in Hollywood were men like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Harry Cohn. He had numerous stars and production personnel under contract, an array of soundstages with lavish sets for interior scenes, and sprawling backlots filled with standing sets for the numerous historical dramas and adventures the studio made. Many of the top directors of Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and ’70s worked at Shaw Bros., including Chang Cheh, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Li Han-hsiang and Lau Kar Leung.
The studio turned out swordplay adventures, kung fu movies, melodramas, comedies, crime movies, musicals and spectacular historical dramas set against the backdrop of Ancient China. One can argue, as I frequently do, that as Mainland China cut off contact with traditional Chinese art and culture during the oppressive years of the Cultural Revolution, Shaw Bros. kept Chinese history and culture alive through its many movies about Chinese historical and folkloric figures and adaptations of classic Chinese texts.
Most American fans were introduced to Shaw Bros. through the kung fu films that began to be released in English-dubbed editions in the U.S. in 1973. The very first of these was a Shaw Bros. production, KING BOXER, released in the U.S. in March 1973 as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH.
I was there at a free preview screening of it at the Loew’s State Theater in Times Square on March 20, 1973. It officially opened the next day. This is a scan of the ad flyer they distributed that night:
The audience went nuts. We’d never seen fight scenes like this before. Over the next few months, the neighborhood theaters were filled with kung fu films, primarily from Shaw Bros. and its chief competitor, Golden Harvest. By the mid-1970s, the craze had died down somewhat, but kung fu films continued to be released in the U.S., primarily on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. These movies played 42nd Street theaters for years afterwards, usually with new titles. THE CHINESE BOXER became HAMMER OF GOD; THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN became TRIPLE IRONS; SHAOLIN TEMPLE became DEATH CHAMBER; THE BRAVE ARCHER became KUNG FU WARLORDS; and THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN became MASTER KILLER.
And a 42nd Street Shaw Bros. double feature of the era:
In late 1973, I saw the Shaw epic SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON, based on a classic Chinese text called “The Water Margin,” at a Bronx neighborhood theater on a double bill with Robert Aldrich’s western, ULZANA’S RAID, starring Burt Lancaster. Unfortunately, SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON, released in the U.S. by Roger Corman, was cut by 40 minutes from its Hong Kong version and I would have to wait some 30 years before I got to see the uncut original, THE WATER MARGIN, in Mandarin with English subtitles, in a remastered DVD. By then, I’d read the book (which I have in an English translation under the title, Outlaws of the Marsh).
Actually, my first exposure to Shaw Bros. films came even earlier than this. When I used to go to Chinatown with my neighborhood friend Tommy Chin and his family, we would pass by the movie theaters that were showing Hong Kong movies. One of them seemed to specialize in Shaw films, as these flyers I picked up attest:
I’ve since acquired three of the films mentioned in the flyers–and even reviewed two of them on IMDB–although THREE SWINGING GIRLS remains MIA. If only I’d had the wherewithal to go and see one of these double bills back then. Who knows what impact it would have had on me? (Friends of ours in the neighborhood went to Chinatown to see the Bruce Lee movies long before they came out in English-dubbed versions.) I did eventually visit that theater, the Sun Sing, on my first visit to a Chinatown theater, on September 30, 1992, to see DRAGON INN, a “wire-fu” epic starring Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung, and TWIN DRAGONS, starring Jackie Chan.
Even earlier than these trips to Chinatown, I remember an issue of Life Magazine from December 20, 1963, that was devoted to the movies and it had a photo from a Hong Kong historical epic and I believe it was the Shaw Studio’s LADY GENERAL HUA MULAN (1964), starring Ivy Ling Po. I think I still have that issue somewhere, but if I took the time to look for it now, I’d never get this piece done.
In the early 1980s, a local TV station (WNEW, Channel 5) began playing English-dubbed kung fu movies on Saturday afternoons under the heading of “Drive-in Theater” or “Black Belt Theater.” Many of these were Shaw Bros. productions. When kung fu star Alexander Fu Sheng was killed in a car accident in July 1983 (ten years to the month after Bruce Lee died), I read the obituary and decided to seek out his films, turning to the TV listings for “Black Belt Theater.” I managed to see four of his best films, all Shaw productions, in this way: DEATH CHAMBER (aka SHAOLIN TEMPLE), BLOODY AVENGERS (aka BOXER REBELLION), FOUR ASSASSINS (aka MARCO POLO) and THE AVENGING EAGLE. It would be another 20 or more years before I got to see the original versions of these films. What struck me about Fu Sheng’s portrayals of various kung fu heroes was not only the quality of his fighting skills, but that of his acting as well. Fifteen years later I got to see what is arguably his greatest performance, as a warrior-gone-mad, in 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER (1983), the film he was making when he was killed. Since then, I’ve seen 35 of his 42 film credits (as listed on IMDB), nearly all of them for Shaw Bros., and I consider him, arguably, to be the best actor who’s ever worked in kung fu films (with his frequent onscreen partner Gordon Liu a close second).
In 1997, as new Hong Kong film production was waning in the wake of the handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China, I began exploring older Hong Kong movies and going back to the old school kung fu that I’d dabbled in off and on in the 1970s and early 1980s but had never explored obsessively before. I found a store in Chinatown that sold VHS tapes of old Shaw Bros. movies, pan-and-scan, but at least uncut and in Mandarin with English subtitles, even though the subtitles, anamorphically stretched out across the screen, were usually cut off on the sides. I was particularly impressed with TWIN SWORDS (1965), a historical swashbuckler starring Jimmy Wang Yu (ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, CHINESE BOXER) that boasted beautiful color, lavish sets, great costumes and lots of high-flying swordfighting action, where heroes leapt up and down impossible distances to gain entry into castles held by their opponents. It also had choral songs describing the action on the soundtrack.
I also got to see my first Huangmei opera, a genre of historical operettas in which roughly half of the dialogue is sung. It was a film called THE GRAND SUBSTITION (1965), in which the infant heir to the throne is switched with another baby to save the heir’s life when his uncle engineers a palace coup. The baby grows up to be a young prince (played by actress Ivy Ling Po) who eventually learns the truth and seeks revenge. THE GRAND SUBSTITUTION actually played in New York in a subtitled version back in 1965 and was reviewed in The New York Times. In fact, a quick check of The New York Times Review Index reveals a total of seven Shaw Bros. Hong Kong films that were reviewed by The New York Times from 1964 to 1967, a period when a San Francisco-based distributor named Frank Lee was intent on trying to make inroads in New York by showing these films outside of Chinatown in the midtown Manhattan theater, the 55th Street Playhouse, in the hopes of attracting an arthouse audience. Unfortunately, cultural barriers at the time were pretty strong and the reviewers did not always appreciate the conventions of these films. The fellow who reviewed THE GRAND SUBSTITUTION in Variety, for instance, was quite flustered by the fact that an actress was playing a male role and that it was so obvious to the viewers that it was an actress. (Ivy Ling Po specialized in male roles or female roles where the character has to dress like a man, such as LADY GENERAL HUA MULAN, which also played New York back then.)
In addition to TWIN SWORDS, I picked up other early Jimmy Wang Yu movies in Chinatown, including TRAIL OF THE BROKEN BLADE, THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO, GOLDEN SWALLOW and his 1967 hit, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. Wang Yu was the Shaw Studio’s first real martial arts star and his last production for Shaw was THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), which he also directed, and which is considered by many observers (including me) to be the first “true” kung fu movie. Afterwards, he left the studio to work for other companies, including Shaw’s chief rival, Golden Harvest. During the course of this re-discovery of old school kung fu, I found many of the great Shaw Bros. kung fu films directed by Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung, mostly via bootleg VHS copies of the old English-dubbed versions that had been released in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These included MASTER KILLER (THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN), DEATH CHAMBER (SHAOLIN TEMPLE), THE DUEL (DUEL OF THE IRON FIST), THE INVINCIBLE ONE (DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN), INVINCIBLE POLE FIGHTER (8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER), EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, KILLER ARMY (REBEL INTRUDERS), THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, UNBEATABLE DRAGON (INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN), SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS, HEROES TWO, MEN FROM THE MONASTERY, FIVE MASTERS OF DEATH (FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS), and THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (FIVE VENOMS). Sometimes the tapes I bought wound up being copies of films taped off WNEW’s broadcasts back in the 1980s. I once had these films on tape myself, but had taped over them during a period of financial difficulty when I couldn’t afford to keep buying tapes. (Luckily, I’d kept my copy of FOUR ASSASSINS, a kung fu film about the visit to China by Marco Polo, played in the film by an American actor, Richard Harrison.)
The next great wave of Shaw Bros. movies in the U.S. began in late 2002 when the Hong Kong-based distributor, Celestial Pictures, bought up the Shaw Bros. film library and began releasing the films in newly restored and remastered Region 3 DVDs, which became available to stateside aficionados via Chinatown video stores. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, I began haunting Lai Ying, then at 89 Bowery (next to the by-now-shuttered Music Palace Theater), every month for the new Celestial releases. (Michelle and Paul, cousins working their way through college at their uncle’s store, made Lai Ying the most western-friendly video store in Chinatown.) We weren’t just getting kung fu movies from Celestial, but also every other genre the studio had produced, including spy movies, comedies, romantic melodramas, gangster movies, war movies, musicals, operas, costume dramas, fantasies and even a superhero movie. One of the first wave of releases was the hugely popular comedy, HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS (1973), about life in a working-class apartment complex in Hong Kong in the 1960s, with its all-star cast members speaking in Hong Kong’s dominant dialect, Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, the language normally used in Shaw Bros. films up until then. (HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS beat Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON at the Hong Kong boxoffice that year.) I watched my first Hong Kong musical, HONG KONG NOCTURNE (1967). I watched THE KINGDOM AND THE BEAUTY (1959), a Huangmei opera about a historical romance between an Emperor, traveling incognito, and a peasant girl, played by Linda Lin Dai, the Shaw Studio’s biggest star in the years 1958-1964.
I would go on to see several more Lin Dai movies, including the contemporary comedies/romances, LES BELLES (1961) and LOVE PARADE (1963); the historical fantasy, MADAM WHITE SNAKE (1962); the epic historical drama, THE LAST WOMAN OF SHANG (1964); and the wartime melodrama, THE BLUE AND THE BLACK (1966). (Lin Dai killed herself in early 1964, with five films awaiting release.)
With KILLER CLANS (1976), I was introduced to the films of Chor Yuen, who did a whole series of stylized costume martial arts films based on the novels of Ku Lung, which tell of a mythical “martial arts world” dominated by competing clans and tournaments and set in a universe of clan villas, interlocking spy networks and lavish mountain or lakeside hideaways where mysterious women strum stringed instruments and flirt cryptically with the wandering heroes.
Director Yuen made close to 20 of these films and they offered a quieter, more elegant change of pace from the studio’s more frenetic kung fu films, with an emphasis on intrigue and trickery rather than kung fu combat.
One reviewer who did a piece on the arrival of waves of Shaw films on DVD (if I recall correctly, it was either David Chute in Film Comment or J. Hoberman in the Village Voice–or it could have been both) commented that the sudden influx of all these movies, most of which had been out of circulation since their original theatrical release, was akin to, say, Warner Bros. movies from the 1930s to the 1950s being locked away for decades and then coming out all at once.
The non-action genre I was most eager to explore was the musical, both the costume dramas in Huangmei opera vein and the more contemporary musicals with their TV- and Vegas-style dance numbers. I was disappointed in some, but found others quite interesting. Granted, there was no equivalent of Astaire and Rogers or Gene Kelly’s masterpieces like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, but there were counterparts to the Elvis musicals, not such a bad thing in my estimation.
The Huangmei operas were more to my liking, with lovely music and lyrical narrative songs against a backdrop of elaborate sets, stunning costumes, bright colors and occasional large-scale dance numbers.
I was especially moved by the 1977 version of the classic text, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER. I believe it was the last Huangmei opera produced by the studio and it took a chance by casting two young actresses from Taiwan known mainly for Taiwanese youth comedies and melodramas, Brigitte Lin in the male role of Baoyu and Sylvia Chang in the role of Daiyu, the fragile cousin he falls in love with. The two of them, particularly in their scenes together, brought a level of psychological depth to their performances that had never been seen in this genre and the results were absolutely breathtaking.
I wound up reviewing over 145 Shaw Bros. movies for IMDB. I’d like to link some of those reviews, especially the atypical ones (i.e., non-martial arts) like some of the musicals:
Plus I’ve reviewed dozens of kung fu and swordplay films from the studio, including most of the other titles I’ve mentioned here.
I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s so much to write about when it comes to the Shaw Bros. output from those years. I haven’t even cited the one TVB series I’ve watched, “Legend of the Condor Heroes.” I haven’t even cited the one DVD for which I provided audio commentary: THE BRAVE ARCHER (1977), put out by Media Blasters.
I haven’t even mentioned Li Li Hua, the Shaw Bros. actress who starred in one Hollywood film, CHINA DOLL (1958), which I wrote about here on June 30, 2012. She starred in EMPRESS WU and THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, two of the films whose reviews I linked above.
And, saddest of all, I gave only passing mention to one of the best kung fu movie directors ever–Lau Kar Leung (aka Liu Chia Liang), who died last year at the age of 76. He directed many of the best Shaw Bros. kung fu films, including CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, SHAOLIN MANTIS, DIRTY HO, MY YOUNG AUNTIE, LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA, and 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, to name a few. Here’s a shot of him from one of his best films, HEROES OF THE EAST:
His job in the film is to train star Gordon Liu in the techniques he’ll need to prove the superiority of Chinese kung fu to a group of Japanese challengers.
I hope all this has given you some idea of the scope of Shaw Bros. productions and urge you to seek some of them out. The best way to pay tribute to a giant of Hong Kong cinema like Run Run Shaw is to simply watch his films.
And finally, a clipping from the New York Post of June 10, 1974 to show you how widely known Mr. Shaw was back then: