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Friday, October 17, 2008

Shaw Brothers & Kung Fu Cinema Part One


***WARNING: Some nudity below***


The Shaw Brothers began film distribution and production in the early 1920's against their father's wishes. Their father, Shaw Yuh Hsuen, became wealthy running a dye factory in Shanghai. He was an extremely charitable man. He donated liberally to the public including distributing money and grain to those in need. He was disapproving of his sons pursuing careers in the entertainment industry. In the beginning, the Shaw's were like a traveling cinematic circus setting up tents from town to town and showing films and attracting the curiosity of the populace. Wherever they went, if movie showings proved profitable, they built a cinema there. The brothers methods were crude and rudimentary but their drive and devotion would pay off in the long run. One particularly ingenious idea was that when the Shaw's bought property to build a cinema, they would purchase more land than necessary. The thought being that a prosperous theater would benefit surrounding businesses increasing adjacent property value. They continued to utilize the mobile cinemas for use in rural areas far from the cities.


The brothers methods were crude and rudimentary but their drive and devotion would pay off in the long run. One particularly ingenious idea was that when the Shaw's bought property to build a cinema, they would purchase more land than necessary. The thought being that a prosperous theater would benefit surrounding businesses increasing adjacent property value. They continued to utilize the mobile cinemas for use in rural areas far from the cities.


The Shaw's had experimented with "talking pictures" as early as 1931. Their first "talkie", NORMAL DRAGON would see release in 1933. Costing US$1,500 to make, the film grossed US$85,000. Its theatrical run in Hong Kong ran for over a year. In addition to their theaters, the Shaw's were also successful in running amusement parks, another prosperous business venture that would last into the 1980's. Trouble struck when the Japanese entered Singapore and seized all of Shaw Brothers assets. Interrogated, the Shaw's were forced to show Japanese propaganda films. Hollywood films were banned by the Japanese oppressors in late 1943. The cinemas and amusement parks were given Japanese names and were forced to display Japanese flags.


After the war was over, Shaw Brothers began the arduous task of taking back their place as the leading film distributors in Asia. During the early 1940's prior to the Japanese takeover, American productions accounted for 70% of films shown in Shaw cinemas with only a meager 13% being home grown product. However, by the mid 1960's, Chinese films shown in Shaw theaters in Hong Kong had slowly began to overtake American films in popularity for the first time. Live stage shows such as beauty pageants, live bands and magic acts were implemented into the Shaw scheme to keep crowds interested and coming back. The aggressive tactic of buying out their competition as well as overtaking independent outfits allowing only the showings of Shaw distributed movies led to a monopolization the likes of which would never fly in America.


By 1965, Shaw Brothers Limited had 35 companies under its banner. The company owned 130 cinemas throughout South East Asia including Singapore and Malaysia, nine amusement parks and three production studios in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It was also around this time that Shaw's began circulating their own movie magazines-- Southern Screen Magazine went to press in 1957 and was distributed all around the world. A second Shaw publication, Hong Kong Movie News surfaced in 1966. Both magazines ran until Shaw's closed up their film distribution arm in the mid 1980's.


With all the constant cash flow running under the Shaw banner, competition was always present. Shaw's faced opposition from Malay companies MFP and Cathay Organization. Even still, Shaw Brothers garnered most of the attention cleaning house at film festivals and welcoming a bevy of foreign stars to the fabled studios. Famous personalities such as James Mason, William Holden, Curt Jurgens, Mylene Demongeot, Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Robert Wise, Cliff Robertson, Rex Harrison, John Derek, Ursula Andress, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, The Beatles and British comedian Norman Wisdom were just some that made the jaunt to Hong Kong to visit the thriving studio. MFP studios would dissolve in 1967 but Cathay would survive well into the 80's.


By the end of the 1960's, Shaw studios occupied 850,000 sq ft of ground (At the time, the largest privately owned studio in the world). It had five blocks of administrative buildings, an editing and sound recording studio, four staff dormitories that housed 1,500 workers and twelve sound stages which could be used to shoot twelve different indoor sequences at the same time. In addition, sixteen permanent outdoor sets with palaces, gardens and complete streets were erected for filming purposes. There was even a reproduction of China's Great Wall among the many elaborate and ornate Shaw sets.


By 1966, Shaw Brothers cinematic output had reached 40 films (sometimes more) a year, up from 26 films the previous year. The Shaw films of the era cost five times the budget of an average Chinese film, which, before Shaw Studios was officially opened, was HK$200,000. As many as twelve movies would be in production at the same time and the average production time was between 40 and 60 days.


By this time, the Shaw's had switched over to filming silent, dubbing the soundtrack in afterwards. The films were then dubbed into all the various Chinese dialects (most predominantly Mandarin and Cantonese) as well as foreign languages for the films deemed worthy enough for release in Western markets. Different versions of films were also made-- strong versions for the US, Japanese and European markets and a slightly less graphic version for Hong Kong. The prints seen in Asian territories such as Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan were stripped clean of any offensive acts.


In the beginning, the actors/actresses and behind the scenes technicians were paid well. Everybody lived on the Shaw lot. It was like a world unto itself. The Shaw's treated their filmmaking empire much like a factory and the functions and activities of the studios operations were handled in that fashion. The Shaw Brothers performers were all treated like family and were encouraged to participate in events sponsored by Shaw such as sporting events and other extra-curricular activities. The fun and excitement would come to an end in the mid 80's when the Shaw's were unable to adjust to rapidly changing audience tastes as well as change from within the industry itself.


A combination of new and hungry filmmakers adapting to a New Wave style of movie-making as well as a new type of action film replacing the "old fashioned" type produced for years by the Shaw's. The few inspired attempts at the new style were not enough to save the studio whose decline in quality had reached a major low point from the exuberance of a decade earlier. Considering so much similar programming was being shown on television for free, Shaw Brothers Movietown was closed as a film production facility and leased out to other studios both local and abroad. This was not a sad end for Shaw's however, as Sir Run Run Shaw owned TVB, a television arm he launched in 1973. TVB has since become the leading producer of Chinese television programming in the world.


Prior to the Shaw era of action filmmaking, action films featured magical flying swordsmen that could shoot laser beams from their weapons as well as their hands. These films were popular for a number of years. These fantasy swordplay movies were of a genre called Wuxia Pian, or Martial Chivalry films. Swordplay movies would get an upgrade with the releases of King Hu's COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) and Chang Cheh's ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). The genre would soon be replaced by a more modern and brutal style of fight film.


The Wuxia Pian would enjoy a popular resurgence in 1976 with the release of Chu Yuan's KILLER CLANS. In the early 70's, the swordplay films were phased out for films featuring predominantly empty handed combat sequences. Such films had aleady been done in years past. Early examples of kung fu films featured Kwan Tak Hing as real life Chinese hero Wong Fei Hung(also played most recently by Jet Li in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA films of which he starred in 4 of the six)in over 100 b/w movies and a couple of later color ones such as THE SKYHAWK (1974) and DREADNAUGHT (1981).


During the early days of Chinese cinema women were the star attractions. It was also not uncommon to see a woman playing a male character in some of the movies. This would change in 1967 when director Chang Cheh would alter HK cinema forever with the release of ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN; the first action film to break a million dollars at the HK box office. The film also had a more realistic approach to the swordplay scenes that films before it didn't have.


The films star was Jimmy Wang Yu, a former swimming champion turned actor who would later make a career out of playing one armed heroes. Wang Yu would also star and direct the first film to feature actual kung fu training and stylings in the 1969 production, THE CHINESE BOXER. Wang ultimately left Shaws to make films for recent upstart studio, Golden Harvest, run by former Shaw executive Raymond Chow. Founded in 1970, the studio was on shaky ground till Chow was able to secure the talent that was Bruce Lee.

DVD Availability: Celestial Pictures has released over 500 of the Shaw Brothers movies on DVD through the Hong Kong based, IVL label-- IVL (R3); Dragon Dynasty (R1); Image Entertainment (R1); Well Go USA (R1); BCI/Ronin Entertainment (R1)


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