Sunday, January 12, 2014

Invincible One: The Empire of Sir Run Run Shaw Part 2


"People always want more. When we first started these swordplay films, there was no blood. People say it's not exciting enough. We put in more blood. Then if the audience wants more, we put in more blood. Then after so many years, they get tired of the blood, so we reduce. And I think in the very near future we'll cut out all the blood and just action... just fighting." -- Sir Run Run Shaw

Shaw confers with his directors. Chang Cheh at far right. 1965.
Among Run Run Shaw's greatest achievements in the motion picture field was the creation of a new style of action film. This 'Neo Wuxia Pian' would not only surpass everything that had come before it, but it would embolden the genre causing a surge in martial chivalry movies. These included the King Hu classic COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) and Chang Cheh's experimental B/W sword slinger hit, TIGER BOY (1966). The latter title was especially influential in shaping swordplay films and the resulting kung fu actioners that followed.

David Chiang and Chang Cheh win awards for Best Actor and Director for VENGEANCE! (1970).

Chang Cheh, an influential, and multifaceted member of Shaw's team at the time, became an incredibly innovative director with the release of his ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), the first action movie to break the million dollar mark in Hong Kong. With a succession of films surpassing the seven digit range, Chang Cheh became known as the "Million Dollar Director"; and quickly became one of Shaw's key proponents to the studios success. Both men shared the same conveyor belt precision in delivering a flashy product to a public that couldn't devour their Silver Screen sustenance fast enough. Chang Cheh was also a major influence on how films were made both inside, and outside Movie Town. 

Ironically, a film that wasn't a big success in Hong Kong ended up being a smash success in America and other countries -- triumphantly opening the floodgates for a flurry of Fu to follow. That film, KING BOXER (1972), was the first kung fu film to chop and kick its way around the globe -- leaving an indelible mark wherever it played. In America, it was known most famously as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. Hot on its heels was Bruce Lee in FISTS OF FURY and Angela Mao in LADY WHIRLWIND (DEEP THRUST). Many more followed including MGM with ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN and Warner's with SACRED KNIVES OF VENGEANCE (THE KILLER[1972]). Hundreds more hit theaters across the country from small, independent outfits eager to reap benefits from the kung fu craze. The market was literally flooded with kung fu pictures; and remained so through the 70s and into the early 1980s.

Such was the interest in kung fu movies, Time Magazine featured a story in their June 11th, 1973 issue on Run Run Shaw and America's then fascination with the genre. Prior to this, Time Magazine did a feature story on the Shaw's Movie Town in 1960; and in 1966, Life Magazine published a story on the studio as well. Once the 'Fist & Kick' flicks exploded, Shaw Brothers were the universal flavor everybody wanted a taste of.

Curiosity of the mighty movie mogul came fast and furious for much of the 1970s. ABC went to HK to shoot a documentary titled WORLD OF RUN RUN SHAW in '73. There were other documentaries, of course, including entries on the British series Whicker's World (late 60s and early 70s) and another documentary item from the UK titled FISTS OF FIRE from 1974. Time Magazine again went to Shaw Studio in 1976 for another spread to be featured in a May issue (see insert).

Behind the scenes photo from LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)
Shaw and Hammer producer Michael Carreras
With so much interest surrounding Movie Town because of the success of KING BOXER, foreign production companies were knocking on Movie Town's doors for a piece of the kung fu pie. 1974 was the most prosperous year for these co-productions, but they stretched into the early 80s. They included SHATTER and LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (Great Britain); SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT, THIS TIME I'LL MAKE YOU RICH, THE STRANGER & THE GUNFIGHTER and THREE SUPERMEN AGAINST THE AMAZONS (Italy); VIRGINS OF THE 7 SEAS (Germany); CLEOPATRA JONES & THE CASINO OF GOLD, CANNONBALL, METEOR and BLADERUNNER (USA)

Run Run Shaw was also attached, curiously so, to lowbrow horror efforts like the British ALIEN clone INSEMINOID (1981); and America's inverted JAWS-alike, BLOOD BEACH (1980). The budget was painfully low on the former -- at least it appeared so. ALIEN (1979) was particularly popular there, so it made sense Shaw would invest in a similar, if more tasteless picture with its alien rape and cannibalism. Shaw's publicity department was apparently enamored with the films poster as they reused it to formulate the one for Kuei Chi Hung's CURSE OF EVIL in 1982.  The latter title is even more bizarre in that the monster dwells under the beach -- sucking its victims into its maw before they can reach the water!

Producing epics of his own, Shaw was thought of as frugal by some of his critics, but audience trends often dictated how he threw his money around. The man definitely had an eye for supremely trashy movies. It's one of the more intriguing aspects of Run Run in that you wouldn't normally associate a man who rubbed elbows with royalty and high society to produce geekshow exploitation pictures with oodles of sex and violence.

Run Run Shaw (middle) visits the set of one of their biggest budgeted movies, THE 14 AMAZONS (1972).

Shaw and wife Lily at Shaw New Year party 1971
While the Shaw's were riding high at the start of the 1970s with a hefty slate of big budget super-productions (by HK standards), audience interest and tastes would take a downturn by 1975. Like any major film company, some of Shaw's big budget pictures failed to return on their investment. The loss of a few Asian markets in 1975 led to Shaw cutting back on costly pictures towards the end of the decade; as well as scaling back on the length of time spent on each film. Audience trends shifted to more quaint, low key, but articulately choreographed kung fu movies by the close of the 70s. It was at this time that Shaw's were forced to follow the lead of the burgeoning independent film companies -- many of which produced movies that Shaw's distributed.

James Clavell and his family visit Shaw's Movie Town.
Unfortunately, there was one big ticket foreign prospect Shaw had intended on bringing to the big screen that failed to materialize. In 1975 Run Run Shaw purchased the rights to James Clavell's classic novel TAI-PAN. Five time Oscar nominee Carl Foreman (whom Shaw met in 1957) was attached to write the script; and even Clavell himself visited Shaw's for a two week sojourn in HK to discuss the ambitious, and estimated $US12 million production. Intended to be shot entirely (or mostly) at the studio, the film was on and off again through 1977. It was finally made without Shaw's involvement through DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) and MGM in 1986 (Shaw had ceased film production in 1985) with location shooting taking place in China.


Mona Fong, Run Run Shaw, Fanny
Evelyne Kraft, Shaw Yin Yin, Run Run Shaw, Shirley Yu
Run Run Shaw might of always been seen in the company of government officials and royalty, but he never got involved in politics. He never openly discussed money matters, either. He was into women, though; and wasn't shy about showing it. When his picture was being taken, he was often photographed flanked by lovely ladies on both sides of his person. Sometimes his wife Lily would be in there somewhere; sometimes his mistress, Mona Fong (sometimes both together!). Many other times you'd spy him wedged between any number of his big screen starlets. Even during his last few public appearances in 2011, the vibrant Shaw was flanked by beautiful women.


Mona Fong Yat Wah in 1980.
Speaking of Mona Fong, she was a former night club singer before becoming a powerful figure in the Shaw empire. Reportedly she met Run Run Shaw in 1952 after he caught one of her stage performances. After joining the Shaw Organization in 1969, she continued using her vocal talents, but as a dubber. As the 70s progressed, she eventually became Shaw's paramour and business partner -- assisting, and ultimately overtaking producing duties on all the studios films. Fong was Shaw's constant companion. After the death of his wife, Lily Wong Me-chun in 1987, it was ten years before he finally married Fong. They tied the knot in Las Vegas in 1997. Towards the end of the 70s, she seemed to supplant Run Run as the 'watchful eye' of the daily progress of their production slate while he attended to other pertinent matters. She later became managing director at TVB -- a position she vacated in March of 2012 at 77 years of age. There are some who say the decline of Shaw's studio output was due to Fong's participation (or interference). For kung fu cult film fans, Mona Fong presided over one of the most beloved periods in Shaw Brothers history.


Shaw gives a speech before the Royal HK Police Force in 1977.

Aside from his accomplishments in the film industry, Run Run Shaw (and his brother, Runme) was heavily involved in cultural, educational, and economic growth. Twelve years as President of the HK Red Cross and annual donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships are among his numerous humanitarian endeavors. Ever the staunch capitalist, the entrepreneurial Shaw used his wealth to aid the needy, the elderly, and the young. These weren't handouts, mind you, but building blocks for educational, and technological advancement for the betterment of society; Shaw's monetary contributions were also incentives to encourage the younger generation to train their minds for a potentially more prosperous future. Shaw used his immense wealth to found charity organizations such as The Shaw Foundation and The Shaw Trust. The Shaw Prize was established by Run Run in 2002 and is an award for exceptional educational achievement.

During his Movie Town days, Shaw held yearly events that honored Hong Kong and Southeast Asia's elder guard. At multiple locales, members of Shaw's family and staff handed out thousands of gifts that included a small amount of money, parcels of food, and other amenities. This was a gesture that let the older generation know they were not forgotten.

On November 6th, 1974, Shaw received the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) insignia from Governor Sir Murray MacLehose. This was yet another honor bestowed upon the movie magnate for his contributions to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia as chairman, director, or member of numerous colleges, institutes, and committees. One of his biggest awards was yet to come. 

Sir Run Run Shaw talks to Queen Elizabeth II after his knighthood ceremony in 1978. His wife and daughter to his left.

For his service to the public, Run Run Shaw became 'Sir' Run Run Shaw on March 7th, 1978 when he was officially knighted at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II. His Knighthood was among those on the Queen's Birthday Honours List from June 1st, 1977, but the actual knighthood ceremony didn't take place till March of the following year. Accompanying him to this prestigious event were his first wife Lily Wong Me-chun, and his daughter Dorothy (see insert photo)

Run Run Shaw had previously met the Queen in February of 1972 (see photo above) when he and his brother Runme greeted her at the Singapore Turf Club for a royal party and horse races.

Dragon Boat race between the Shaw Team and TVB Team in 1976.

Shaw's New Years Party 1983
Run Run Shaw held New Years parties for his entire staff annually -- cue lots of singing, dancing, drinking and eating. However it was back to the 8-12 hour grind the next day. Shaw also encouraged his stock players to partake in extra-curricular activities held inside of Movie Town. These included sporting events such as basketball games and water sports (like the annual Dragon Boat race) that often pitted a selection of TVB performers against a team of Shaw Brothers stars. Movie Town really was like a family environment. And like any family, there were disagreements.


Shaw's infamous stigma of possessing an "Iron Fist" where management was concerned can be traced back to his MFP days battling with unions. Tensions between him and his employees carried over into the later, more prestigious Shaw Brothers Studio; and the Cathay rivalry reincarnated itself via the Shaw/Golden Harvest feud that started at the dawn of the 1970s. The Shaw Studio was non-union, and modeled on the old Hollywood Studio System (which crumbled in 1948). At Movie Town, stars and employees were kept under contract and paid a fixed rate on a per film basis, plus a monthly allotment. Stars' payment grew over the years, and if their films were successful, bonuses were awarded; and popular contract players were eventually allowed to freelance for outside companies. Some of the actors and or actresses were hired as freelance talent from the start. Many of the stars lived on site in the dormitories with free room and board, while others enjoyed the fruits of their labor away from the studio.

The Shaw's came from a hardworking, factory upbringing; and they treated their filmmaking operations in the same manner. Reportedly, Run Run Shaw kept a tight leash on his talent pool -- much like a father would domineer over his children. Actors were encouraged to stay within the walls of Movie Town -- which was essentially a world in itself. Like with everything, there are positives and negatives to this methodology. Prima Donna attitudes were discouraged, and reportedly could lead to an actors dismissal. Some performers took issue with this and would break their contracts resulting in lawsuits. Sometimes these would be settled amicably and other times not. Possibly the most famous of the latter was the heated "feud" between Shaw and hot-head Jimmy Wang Yu.

Wang Yu was a big star at Shaw's having found his greatest fame under the wing of Chang Cheh. The actor was also not the friendliest, nor the most pleasant person to be around. The 'Tough Guy' persona he often portrayed onscreen was simply a reflection of who he really was. Argumentative and prone to fights, Wang Yu got tired of the restrictive nature of being under contract at Shaw Studio and decided he'd just leave -- whether his contract was up or not. He simply exited the premises in March of 1970 and immediately went to work for Shaw's rival at Golden Harvest. Sued by Shaw Brothers, Wang Yu was not allowed to make movies in Hong Kong (he made them in Taiwan instead) till January of 1973 -- the time his contract was to expire. Even after that time period, Wang Yu seemed to harbor a great deal of animosity towards his former boss by quickly cranking out a cheap knock-off of whatever Shaw picture was in production at the time. Wang Yu did reunite with Chang Cheh in the Chang Ho picture, SHANGHAI 13 (1984).

Other stars that no doubt lit a fire under their boss's seat were Chang Yi and Chen Kuan Tai. Both men abruptly left the studio without warning -- putting in jeopardy a number of films they were working on. Chang Yi (EAGLE CLAW, THE VICTIM), apparently fuming over the way his roles were being handled, caused an entire picture (CALL TO ARMS [1971]) to be re-shot and re-cast altogether. Often overshadowed, or second billed by a female lead, he was charismatic in star turns in Yueh Feng's THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968) and A TASTE OF COLD STEEL (1970).

In October of 1976 while shooting THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978), Chen Kuan Tai was becoming increasingly disgruntled over money and not being allowed to direct; so he simply said "to hell with it" and left the confines of Movie Town for the independent circuit. A lawsuit soon followed him there. He did direct IRON MONKEY (1977) in the interim, and made a slew of independent features as well. Unlike Wang Yu and Chang Yi, Chen and Shaw settled their differences and the actors heavily publicized return occurred two years later co-starring in Chang Cheh's CRIPPLED AVENGERS (1978). One of Chen's bests roles of his entire career came during this second wave at Shaw's starring as a ruthless constable in Kuei Chi Hung's seminal KILLER CONSTABLE (1980).

Hands down the most famous instance of Shaw making a bad business decision would have to be letting Bruce Lee slip through those "Iron Fists" of his. Upon his return to Hong Kong in 1971, Lee, an admirer of the Shaw house style, met with the successful tycoon about making movies there. As the story goes, Lee was given the standard entry level contract. Having already had a taste of the Hollywood life, Lee disapproved and ended up making movies for former Shaw publicity manager Raymond Chow -- who gave the star what he wanted. In 1970, Chow (along with another Shaw alum, Leonard Ho) left Movie Town to set up a rival company christening it Golden Harvest. Mimicking the Shaw Brothers style the best he could, Chow's fledgling company likely wouldn't have survived had it not been for securing Lee's services.

However, Lee did visit the studio on more than one occasion; and it has long been stated he had planned to finally do a movie for Raymond Chow's rival after Shaw relented to his price tag. It is alleged this production would have begun in late '73; and Lee did do a rather lengthy photo shoot there. Photos of him visiting friends on the sets of THE LIZARD (1972), IRON BODYGUARD (1973), BLOOD BROTHERS (1973) and KIDNAP (1974) were highly publicized. Unfortunately, Lee would die in July of 1973, mere days before the release of his last completed movie, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).

Even bigger than losing Lee was Shaw's loss of Michael Hui. Bruce was well known around the world, but Michael Hui dwarfed Lee in Eastern cinema popularity. After famed director Li Han Hsiang (see photo above) was enticed back to the Shaw fold (after an eight year absence and his own failed Taiwanese company) in January of 1972, his first film was to be the satirical THE WARLORD. Hui, a TVB star, was making his big screen debut. He did three more movies for Shaw before Chow stole him away, too. Hui made a great deal of money for Shaw's, but his comedic style was put to better use at Golden Harvest, yielding massive box office returns. It was another step in the decline of Shaw's empire and the rise of Chow's.


Movie Town in 1978

By the early 1980s, Run Run Shaw was still an incredibly rich man. It was business as usual for him. Little had changed, although one thing was becoming increasingly apparent -- Movie Town was nurturing fewer and fewer box office hits. The Shaw Training School was yielding fewer stars with lasting staying power. Chang Cheh's discoveries around this time never quite reached the heights of those he pushed to superstar status earlier in his career. The unexpected overnight success of Jackie Chan was an especially damaging blow to the Shaw movie making machine. In addition to Golden Harvest, a new crop of upstart film companies were offering a fresh approach to filmmaking. Meanwhile, Shaw Brothers stayed on course providing the same type of pictures they'd always made. The few moments of innovation from a tiny contingent of hungry directors wasn't enough to salvage the sinking Shaw ship. However, the overseas market that salivated over their brand of swordplay and kung fu films kept them afloat longer than they probably would have been otherwise. Deciding to close the doors on Movie Town in 1985, Shaw focused all his attention on producing television programming at TVB. The studio was then leased out to foreign and local companies signaling the end of an era.

Recent photo of Sir Run Run Shaw and wife, Mona Fong
It wasn't totally the end, though, as the latter part of the 1990s brought "Another Shaw Production" to the masses in Hong Kong. It was hoped that the time was right for the Shaw Brothers juggernaut to surface once again -- ushering in a new era of Silver Screen dominance. Run Run's second wife, studio manager Mona Fong Yat-wah continued her producing duties leading up to this time; and acted in that capacity for Corey Yuen Kwai's HERO (1997) -- the film trumpeted as Shaw's big studio return. It also was heralded as the comeback movie for Yuen Biao. The popular Takeshi Kaneshiro took the lead in this remake of Chang Cheh's classic THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). With the top tier acting talent aboard, and the Shaw Bros. pedigree, HERO seemed destined for greatness. Sadly, the film was a huge bomb, despite being a worthy addition to the Shaw canon replete with gallons of melodrama and gory violence. The next Shaw related venture, the firefighter action-drama LIFELINE (1997), yielded much better box office in director Johnny To's hands.

In 2000, Sir Run Run Shaw finally sold off his library of some 1,000 movies to Celestial Pictures for the equivalent of $84 million in US money. The company began remastering the films, restoring them to a polished sheen that made them look like they were shot yesterday. For the fans of Shaw's cinema, this was a revelation. Furthermore, the restorations and subsequent releases had issues that irritated a number of fans; but who would have thought we'd ever see the Shaw classics beautifully remastered, and in widescreen? For years, all fans had were shoddy, 3rd, 4th generation bootlegs, or copies of severely edited TV prints. However, a select handful of Shaw Brothers movies did surface legitimately on VHS through a few companies in America; some in widescreen and uncut.

On April 30th, 2009 Celestial donated the entire library to the HKFA (Hong Kong Film Archive; see insert photo above). Shaw's legacy will be preserved forever.

Sir Run Run Shaw finally cut his ties with the film and television world completely in December of 2011 when he sold off his percentage of TVB. He was honored with a few other philanthropic awards leading up to his death on Tuesday, January 7th of 2014.

Surrounded by family, he died in his sleep -- passing peacefully away leaving behind decades of wonderful memories and movies for future generations to enjoy (his brother Runme died in 1985). The other 'Iron Triangle' of Hong Kong cinema are now gone from this world -- that Magnificent Trio that was Chang Cheh, Liu Chia Liang and Sir Run Run Shaw. Without those three men, HK cinema would be an entirely different, and likely far less exciting place.

Throughout those 100+ years, HK's mightiest movie magnate touched the lives of many people through his kindness, his vision, and his motion pictures. In a number of ways, both mankind and the motion picture industry will never be graced with another personality quite like him. For all us fans who only knew him through his cinema ventures, there will always be time for Another Shaw Production.

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