A Brief History of the Shaw Brothers Studio
In January 2014, Run Run Shaw passed away at the age of 106, the last of four brothers who founded the legendary studio that bore their name and produced over one thousand films. Even after stopping production for the most part in the late 1980's, the studio's legacy is still felt, as audiences every year discover (and re-discover) the classic pictures that made the Shaw Brothers household names all over the world.
The Shaw Brothers -- Run Je, Run Me, Run De, and Run Run -- became involved early on in life in their family's business in Shanghai of a chain of opera houses. As films grew in popularity in the early 1900's, the family also added cinemas to their properties. The eldest brother, Run Je, took inspiration from Hollywood studios and came upon the idea of making their own films to show in their theaters, which would give the local audiences more films for their tastes and (not coincidentally) give the family a bigger profit margin.
In 1924, Run Je, Run Me, and Run De formed Tianyi Film Company and released their first film, The Man from Shensi. This, along with other early releases such as New Leaf and Heroine Li Feifei, were hits with Chinese audiences, but the brothers were not satisfied with local success. So, Run Me headed to Singapore to establish the Hai Seng Company to handle the Southeast Asian arm of the company. By 1928, the Shaws were producing enough movies (as well as opening a new slate of theaters) that Run Me enlisted the youngest brother, Run Run, to help out with the operations.
The Shaws were quick to take the pulse of their audience, and adapted their films to change with the industry as a whole. In 1931, they produced the first Chinese "talkie" with Spring on Stage, and the following year brought forth the first movie made in the Cantonese dialect, White Golden Dragon. Cantonese is the dialect found in the southern portion of China, Hong Kong in particular (versus the Mandarin dialect found throughout most of the other regions of the country) and the local audiences, starved for entertainment made specifically for them, made White Golden Dragon a huge hit. Combined with a political climate in Shanghai that was getting more and more oppressive, in 1936, the brothers moved their base of operations to Hong Kong, where they renamed the studio Nanyang Productions.
It is interesting to note here that Run Je was originally slated to be the director of White Golden Dragon, but he was replaced by Tang Xiaodan after Run Je clashed with the lead actor, Cantonese opera star Sit Gok-Sin, due to Run Je wanting Sit to work more hours in a row so the film could be finished faster. This sort of hard managerial style driven by squeezing every cent out of their productions would, for better or worse, come to be a trademark of the Shaws. At any rate, the Shaws continued to release a steady stream of films, including one of the first Cantonese comedies with sound, 1937's Country Bumpkin Visits His In-laws, which Run Run himself wrote and directed.
Like many families, the Shaws were affected deeply by World War II. Their studio in Shanghai was destroyed by the invading Japanese, and their offices in Hong Kong did not fare much better due to incessant bombing, which led to the flammable materials in the stored films catching fire. These events sadly wiped out much of the Shaws' early output, with only a few promotional pictures and other snippets surviving. After the war, the brothers saw their dominance of the local market tested when a new rival, Cathay Organization, came on to the scene. Cathay's push was to modernize the Chinese movie industry, and took great lengths to renovating their theaters with conveniences like air conditioning and wider screens. They also broke from the tradtional stories often presented in Chinese film, and embraced pop culture, oftentimes featuring popular singers as the lead actors.
In response, the Shaws rebuilt their company, with Nanyang handling the production and distribution for Mandarin films made to adhere to Communist China's strict censorship standards, while Run Me and Run Run splintered off to form Shaw Brothers Studios in 1957. On the production side, Run Run and Run Me brokered a deal with the Hong Kong government to get land to build a studio, which would eventually become known as "Movie Town", a huge facility with some 1200 employees where the vast majority of their films were made. Embracing the classic Hollywood studio system, they also signed several major stars to exclusive contracts that forbade them from working with other companies. Finally, the Shaws also set out to make their releases more of spectacles that audiences would need to see in the theater, with bright and colorful visuals shown in "ShawScope" and soundtracks backed by songs by many of the day's popular musical acts.
Audiences responded favorably to the changes Shaw Brothers made, and by the 1960's, they were the dominant studio not just in Hong Kong, but all of Asia. Not willing to sit on their laurels, the Shaws made a bid to enter the Western market when they entered Magnificent Concubine into the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, which became the first Chinese language movie to win an Grand Prix award. Run Run saw how favorably Western audiences responded to the film, and so began to try and re-tool the genre to expand the market, such as with 1966's Come Drink With Me, which again was a hit at Cannes and still to this day regarded by some as the greatest movie ever made in Hong Kong.
In 1972, the Shaws released King Boxer, which is considered the first modern kung fu film. Eschewing the flowy opera-based acrobatic moves traditionally shown in Chinese cinema for a more violent and harder style based on showing a more realistic portrayal of martial arts, the movie was a hit both locally and abroad, where it was retitled Five Fingers of Death. In particular, the movie's themes of revenge and fighting oppression resonated with African-American audiences, and kung fu films soon became a staple of the American "grindhouse" circuit. The movies also became popular viewing fare for a younger generation of Americans, as they were shown during Saturday afternoons on the syndicated television show Kung Fu Theatre.
The studio rode on a wave of success during the 1970's. Though they made movies in just about every genre, it was the kung fu releases that were their bread and butter, where talented directors like Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung created masterpieces of the genre, including The Five Venoms (AKA Five Deadly Venoms) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. However, even the Shaws' most trusted employees were growing tired of their non-stop production schedule and relatively low pay. Two of their top executives, Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, left the Shaws to form Golden Harvest and scored a major coup when they signed Bruce Lee after he felt the Shaws offered too little money. As the decade went on, more producers and directors, known as the "Hong Kong New Wave", modeling themselves off of the independent film movement, formed their own studios, and the Shaws saw their dominance further whittle away.
By the 1980's, local audiences, burned out on too many "oldschool" kung fu pictures coming out in too short of a time span, soon fell out of favor with the genre. The Shaws attempted to diversify their film productions, including working on the highly influential "cyberpunk" film Blade Runner, but many felt both their techniques and products were behind the times. Matters were also not helped by a rise in piracy due to continued Triad gangster involvement in the movie industry and the new technology of VCRs, which allowed bootleggers to quickly and easily duplicate movies. Run Run had already been concentrating more on the Shaws' television station, TVB, and after Run Me passed away in 1985, the studio's production was slowed to a trickle, with only the occasional release coming out.
Though they might not produce many films nowadays, the Shaws' legacy lives on. In 2002, Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the majority of the Shaw Brothers film library and went back and digitally restored them, giving some audiences who were previously limited to poor-quality transfers the chance to see these classic films unedited in their original aspect ratio and language for the first time. Recently, Celestial have also begun to put out Shaw Brothers films on iTunes and other digital formats. The studio's television division, TVB, also continues to be popular in China, and in 2009, they moved from the old Movie Town studios to an expansive new complex.
The passing of Run Run was a sad event for Hong Kong movie fans, but they can rest assured that the films he helped create will live on into the foreseeable future. Their impact still resonates with Western audiences as well, as seen from the influences shown in a range of media, such as the Kill Bill films of Quentin Tarantino, which open with the classic Shaw Brothers logo, or the work of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, who used samples from Shaw Brothers movies in their releases through the years.
Article copyright 2014 by Neil Koch under the United States Copyright Registration for Online Works. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form is allowed without written permission. Related multimedia content featured herein is used solely in the spirit of publicity and remains the property of the respective copyright holders.