When Sir Run Run Shaw passed away on the 7th of this month at the ripe age of 106, there was a collective reflection of the passing of an era. The golden age of classic Chinese cinema. Those of us of a certain age grew up with Shaw Brothers movies. Run Run was the movie mogul behind these movies. He was born Shao Yifu in Ningbo, Zhejiang province in China, on November 23 1907, the youngest of six sons. His father, a rich Shanghai textile merchant, sent him to an American-run school in Shanghai. In 1927, he arrived in Singapore to work with his brother Runme. After producing silent films, they released the first Chinese talkie in 1932. In 1937, Run Run made ‘Country Bumpkin Visits His In-Laws’, the only film he would write and direct. After the war, he moved his operations to Hong Kong, where he founded The Shaw Brothers in 1957. At Shaw Movietown, which he opened in 1961 on the Clear Water Bay Peninsular, he created a complex of studios and residential sites where his cast and crew would worked and lived. Actors were assigned directors and worked as a unit with a fixed team. This would be where it all began for some of the most influential classic Chinese films.
In his first year, Run Run produced 20 Mandarin films and 12 Cantonese films, waging a fierce competitive battle against the Cathay Organisation. By the late 60s, he was on top of his game, replacing the old-fashioned black and white Cantonese films with contemporary-themed Mandarin techni-coloured blockbusters. There were extravagant musicals and epic love stories. But of greater significance, it was here in the Shaw Brothers studio, where the genesis of the quintessential Chinese Kung Ku and Wuxia films would take root. The 70s were the high tide for Chinese film-making as overseas Chinese communities became more affluent. Run Run ran his empire with a tight hand, taking key decisions on stories, scripts and casting. Every year he chose 40 applicants out of over 2,000 hopefuls from all over Asia, coaching his starlets personally. He would frequently appear with them in public. His 46-acre movie studio was known worldwide and he developed profitable side deals with Hollywood studios. One of Shaw’s best-known US films was the sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’ in 1982. At its height, his studio produced about 40 films a year. About 1.5 million people saw a Shaw film weekly in Hong Kong or one of his outlets in Japan, Hawaii and the US and Canadian Chinatowns.
By the time his brother died in 1985, Run Run had refocused on TV. In 1967 he co-founded Television Broadcasts Limited, the first free TV station in Hong Kong. He would build this TV company into the world’s largest producer of Chinese-language broadcasting. By the late 80s, TVB was also the largest supplier of films to the Asian TV market, with its Cantonese language output dubbed into eight languages. The biggest Chinese stars of today, Chow Yun Fatt, Tony Leung, Stephen Chow and Andy Lau all had their breaks in TVB Cantonese drama series in the 80s. Run Run’s legacy however would be his over 1,000 Shaw Brothers movie titles. The list of hits is endless. ‘The Love Eterne’, ‘Blue And Black’. ‘The Kingdom And The Beauty’, ‘Come Drink With Me’, ‘The 36th Chambers Of Shaolin’, ‘The One-Armed Swordsman’, ‘The Sword Of Swords’, ‘Have Sword Will Travel’, ‘The New One-Armed Swordsman’, ‘The 14 Amazons’, ‘The Boxer From Shantung’, ‘The Water Margin’, ‘The Warlord’, ‘Blood Brothers’, ‘The Flying Guillotine’. With such iconic movies, the Hollywood of the East, as his studio was then known, minted stars to rival the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and John Wayne.
As a pioneer filmmaker in Singapore, I cannot imagine an entertainment world in the East without the impact of the Shaw Brothers movies. They defined Chinese entertainment in the 60s and 70s and laid the foundation for film producers, directors and stars to branch out independently, building the Chinese film industry we know today. The movies and stars like Lin Dai, Li Ching, Ivy Ling Po, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Wang Yu and Hueh Hua, along with directors like Chang Cheh and Li Han-Hsiang inspired a generation of Chinese across the globe and kept our dreams alive. From the 70s, Eastern lifestyles were westernised in almost every aspect, mostly by an omnipresent dream factory called Hollywood. The Shaw Brothers movies provided some balance with a pop culture that was purely Chinese. While the Shaw Brothers studio may be modelled after the Hollywood studios, it produced a distinct genre of movies which represented the Chinese heritage and aspirations during a time of accelerated modernisation. It was our own dream factory. The nature of the movies I make as a filmmaker has a direct link to the influence of the Shaw Brothers movies. And I am happy to acknowledge such genre-defining Western directors as Quentin Tarantino to be a big fan of Shaw Brothers films. Some of his most famous movies are tributes to the golden era of Chinese classic films.