After a career that spanned almost the entire history of Chinese film, virtually creating the martial arts/kung fu genre that has gained lasting, world-wide popularity, and with films that have inspired generations of other film-makers in Asia and around the world, Sir Run Run Shaw passed away on 7 January 2014 after 106 (or 107) eventful years. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks back at extraordinary cinematic and entrepreneurial career of the man who produced the Blade Runner.
Sir Run Run Shaw, the son of a prosperous Chinese textile merchant, was born in Ningpo, China in 23 November 1907. But instead of following in his father’s business footsteps like an obedient Chinese son, together with two of his brothers, Run Run Shaw went into the cinema business. Along the way, in addition to building a vast fortune from entertaining audiences, he virtually created Chinese genre cinema as a well-loved pan-Asian industry, entertaining the multitudes with the kind of films he himself loved best – the kind, he would tell interviewers, that made lots of money.
Reflecting on the successes of his film business, at the peak of his cinematic empire, Shaw had told Time magazine in 1976, before he decided to enter the TV business, “A small screen can never compare with a big screen. Movie houses will carry on. People like to go out, they like to be in a crowd… as long as the Chinese population in Asia is big, I will get back my investment. Besides, I make movies only for entertainment, never politics.” And then, a few years later, he made even more money from television.
After his exceptionally long career, Shaw died at the age of 107, although it might have only been 106. (In traditional Chinese age counting, a child is already a year old on the day they are born, and so sources have given conflicting accounts of his Shaw’s actual age.)
In his career, he mentored such talents as actor Chow Yun-fat and director John Woo, and provided inspiration to Hollywood luminaries like Quentin Tarantino. He even produced Ridley Scott’s dystopian science fiction cult classic, “Blade Runner ” – after “Casablanca” this writer’s own favourite film.
Watch: Blade Runner theatrical trailer
Over his career, Shaw’s factory-like film enterprise, Shaw Brothers Studios, is reported to have turned out nearly a thousand feature films. Some became classics, while others, often churned out in just a few weeks, have been nearly forgotten. But almost all of them did exactly what they were designed to do – show a profit for Shaw’s company.
Then, as television viewing grew more popular in Hong Kong and then throughout southern China and beyond, Run Run Shaw took his entrepreneurial genius into that medium as well, despite his earlier protestations to Time. The programs on the TV network he helped create – TVB – continue to attract hundreds of millions of viewers across East and Southeast Asia. Shaw himself continued to run TVB until he finally stepped down at the age of 104.
Shaw’s TV empire gave actors like Chow Yun-fat their first breaks – before they moved on to become international stars. And director Wong Kar-wai, the man behind such critically acclaimed art-house movies like “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love,” got his start in a training course in Shaw’s TV network and then worked there for a short time as a lowly production assistant.
Shaw was the sixth of seven children. His elder brother, Runme Shaw, had established a silent film studio, Unique Film Production Co. Then, Run Run and another brother, Runje, went to Singapore in 1923 to market these films to overseas Chinese communities scattered throughout Southeast Asia. They were so successful they eventually ended up owning well over a hundred cinemas all across the region, as well as production facilities in Singapore. Shaw theatres could be found as far afield as in the small towns of Borneo and Java in the then-Dutch East Indies.
The New York Times, describing Shaw’s early business adventures, has written about Run Run Shaw’s earliest entertainment efforts, “Evincing little interest in the family business, Run Run and Run Me turned instead to entertainment. The first play they produced was called ‘Man From Shensi,’ on a stage, as it turned out, of rotten planks. As the brothers often told the story, on opening night the lead actor plunged through the planks, and the audience laughed. The Shaws took note and rewrote the script to include the incident as a stunt. They had a hit, and in 1924 they turned it into their first film. After producing several more movies, the brothers decided that their homeland, torn by fighting between Nationalists and Communists, was too unstable. In 1927 they moved to Singapore, which was then part of British colonial Malaya. Besides producing their own films in Singapore, the brothers imported foreign movies and built up a string of theaters. Their business boomed until the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula in 1941 and stripped their theaters and confiscated their film equipment.” The brothers survived World War II and a harsh Japanese occupation – reportedly with some $4 million in gold, currency and jewels buried in the garden. The buried treasure kept them alive during the war and helped them restart their business after the Japanese surrender.
After the war, faced with growing competition from new rivals in the region, Shaw moved the production facilities to Hong Kong in the 1950s to modernise the company, decisively shifting the focus from exhibiting movies to making them. Then, in 1961, he opened Movie Town studios in a still-rural part of Hong Kong and his moviemaking dominance in the region took off in earnest.
At its peak, Shaw’s Movie Town had some 1,500 employees working full time on ten soundstages – and the complex was said to be the most productive movie studio in the world. His films were made with draconian assembly-line methods – stars and technical staff alike lived in dormitories at the studio’s location. At one point it was producing some forty films a year – mostly stories about Asian gangsters – or kung fu/martial arts/sword fighting epics – and these Shaw films were being watched by around 1.5 million people a week.
One of Shaw’s inspirations was to take the martial arts genre and place some of the films in modern times, rather than back in the misty past of feudal China. One of his films, “The Five Fingers of Death” became a popular hit with audiences in the US – as well as throughout Asia.
Director Quentin Tarantino, of the “Kill Bill” franchise, spoke of the influence on his work of Shaw’s films. Some years ago, Tarantino told reporters, “For a year, I’d watch one old Shaw Brothers movie a day – if not three,” in preparation for his own filming – and he even used the Shaw Brothers films’ opening logo as an homage to the influence on him of Shaw’s martial arts films. (Curiously, Shaw’s logo was originally inspired by the shield and initials, WB, of Warner Brothers’ own opening logo.)
Shaw was quick to admit that making art was never his first priority. He once told Time magazine, simply, “We’re here to make money.” Nevertheless, when film director Raymond Chow told the boss that the films they were making were just terrible, Chow admits he was afraid for his job. Instead, Shaw promoted him higher up in the company.
Despite his widely applauded business acumen, Shaw failed to grasp the explosive cinematic potential of Bruce Lee, after he had returned to Hong Kong following time in Hollywood. Shaw had insisted that Lee sign the company’s standard contract. Rather than go to work for Shaw, Lee signed with Golden Harvest Films, a new company founded by Raymond Chow instead. In more recent years, yet another star, Jackie Chan, also declined to work with Shaw and his assembly line style of filmmaking.
Eventually, audience tastes changed to prefer a grittier, more realistic type of film over the kinds Shaw’s team was churning out and film production at the studio came to an end in the early 1980s as demand for the product slackened. By that time, however, Shaw had moved on to television with TVB – still Hong Kong’s dominant station. TVB continues to have a huge following in southern China as well and its programs, often dubbed into other languages, now reach an estimated 300 million households globally. TVB was the starting point for such talents as Chow Yun-fat, Wong Kar-wai, Andy Lau and Stephen Chow. Thirteen years ago, the Shaw film library was sold to Celestial Pictures, which has been restoring them digitally and re-releasing them to film viewers eager for a look at good quality prints of the golden age of kung fu flicks.
A little over two years ago, recognizing his inability to groom a successor for his television empire, Shaw finally sold his controlling stake in TVB network to a group of Hong Kong investors. At the announcement of his death on Tuesday, the company said of him, “With his vision and energy, he had built the company to become Hong Kong’s premier television station and a world leader in the Chinese-language television industry”.
Throughout his life, ever the showman, Shaw enjoyed the wild glamour of the Asian media world that he, himself, had helped create. During his life he ruled his media empire from a glitzy, garish Art Deco mansion in Hong Kong that looked like a cross between an overripe Hollywood mansion and a Hans Christian Andersen cookie castle. Well into his ninth decade, he attended social events escorted by two “arm candy” starlets, one balanced on each arm. And he took to being photographed in a classic tai chi exercise stance, wearing a Chinese mandarin’s traditional black gown.
In 1991, Shaw became the unlikely hero in the saving of the department store chain, Macy’s, buying a tenth of its preferred shares, thereby keeping the company from bankruptcy. Children across America may just have Shaw to thank for keeping alive the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade tradition.
In his later years he began to spend more time on his philanthropic activities, including the annual Shaw Prizes – established in 2004 – that provided a $1 million a year to its winners in the fields of mathematics, medicine and astronomy.
In its obituary, the New York Times noted, “After his brother’s death in 1985, Mr. Shaw expanded his interest in television and became a publishing and real estate magnate as well. For his philanthropy, much of it going to educational and medical causes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with public expressions of gratitude by the Communist authorities in Beijing.”
Shaw rarely spoke publicly about his various philanthropic endeavours, however. In one case, reported only much later, after Shaw had learned medical teams trying to deal with leprosy in south-western China were finding it difficult to travel through the mountainous terrain, he donated a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles to the program, but on condition that there be no publicity for his gift.
But of all his cinematic works, it is his involvement with “Blade Runner” as the film’s producer that seems most astonishing to this writer. With that film’s astonishing setting in a future Los Angeles that seems like a nightmarish version of one of the more run-down parts of Hong Kong, it is fun to imagine an early production meeting between Shaw, director Ridley Scott and the rest of the creative team – as Shaw describes the sensations of one of Hong Kong’s dicier neighbourhoods. And then Scott’s creative impulses start to kick in, and a glorious, shimmering, hallucinogenic film is born. That would have been one amazing meeting in which to have been a fly on the wall. DM
For more, read:
Hong Kong movie mogul Run Run Shaw dies at the AP;
Run Run Shaw, Movie Mogul Seen as Creator of Kung Fu Genre, Dies at 106 at the New York Times;
Run Run Shaw, Father of Hong Kong’s Movie Industry, Dies at Bloomberg.com;
The influential mogul was one of the founding fathers of the Hong Kong entertainment industry. Legendary media mogul Run Run Shaw has died at the Hollywood Reporter.
Photo: Hong Kong tycoon Run Run Shaw, then 102, attends the Run Run Shaw prize presentation ceremony in Hong Kong September 28, 2010. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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