Something odd happened the day after Run Run Shaw died. The local media sang in chorus praises to the grand old man of Hong Kong cinema. As the tributes poured in, it would appear that Shaw, who died at the age of 107, was a saint. No one had a negative word to say about him.
If the reaction is anything to go by, you would think the local press held a conference before delivering the eulogy. For the views expressed were unanimously reverential. Without exception, newspaper articles lauded him as a man of vision. Commentators saw him as a heroic pioneer who single-handedly built the HK movie and TV industry. They praised him for hand-picking and cultivating the stars and starlets who subsequently shined on the big screen. They applauded Shaw the philanthropist for donating millions to charity.
In a documentary, the local English-language TVB Pearl—the television station Shaw founded—lovingly portrayed him as a gentleman always kind to everyone. To show respect for the man, the last 15 minutes of the programme were entirely devoted to a photo exhibition. With only soft music playing in the background and no commentary, viewers were tenderly treated to an endless series of pictures of Shaw with his family and grandchildren, with friends and tycoons, politicians and celebrities, and the rich and famous.
During that time, everyone sat and gawked; it was meant to be a cozy family photo-album session. Slowly, we were pulled into Shaw’s extended family and showbiz world. The idea behind the display, I suppose, is that in time, we would feel irresistibly drawn to the great man and in the end, everyone would mourn him, perhaps even as a family member. If that is the intention, I must say it didn’t work, not with me at least.
Though it is much too flattering, the appraisal by the HK press is correct in some aspects. Shaw was the quintessential movie mogul. The Shaw Brothers Studio was the biggest of its kind in Asia, releasing a staggering 800 movies worldwide. Modelled on Hollywood of the 1930’s, his Hong Kong-based film empire controlled everything from acting talent to production, distribution and the movie theatres. At its peak, Shaw’s business owned a chain of 200 cinemas in Asia and the US.
A shrewd businessman, he took note of the local cinema-goers’ liking for martial arts action and practically invented the hugely successful kung fu genre. As his fortune grew, part of the wealth was funnelled to worthy causes such as education, hospitals and disaster relief efforts in China. All of this has been extensively documented about the glittering Shaw legend.
Dig deeper under the glitzy surface, however, and the picture of a flawed man emerges. Like most local self-made tycoons in those days, Shaw ruled his business with an iron fist. He looked upon the coterie of actors as his chattels and ran the studio like it was a sweatshop. Films were turned out at a furious pace, around the clock. In its heyday, his studio made about 40 movies a year on 12 sound stages that operated in three eight-hour shifts. Everyone, directors and actors included, worked a 60-hour week. Wages were generally low, so some had to moonlight to supplement their incomes. Staff signed eight-year service contracts and most lived in the dormitories built on the lot. It was a show-biz boot camp, Hong Kong style.
The way he managed his business tells us something about the man. Shaw was a bean counter at heart. Ironically, his obsession with keeping outlay low had cost him dearly. Though he was supposed to have an eye for spotting talent, his instinct failed him when it came to signing Bruce Lee. Back in the early 1970’s, Shaw turned down the future star’s proposal for a contract offer of $10,000 per film. In his mind, no Asian actor was worth that much. Little did he know. Lee shrugged off the rejection and approached Raymond Chow, the boss of Golden Harvest. Chow made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Lee went on to star in his first movie, The Big Boss, and rocketed to superstardom soon after.
Lee wasn’t the only actor Shaw failed to win over to his side. Jackie Chan, along with other actors and directors, also found Chow’s offers a lot more persuasive. Adding injury to insult, Chow himself was Shaw’s former protégé. He jumped ship to set up his own company as he felt hampered by Shaw’s iron grip. The string of defections to Golden Harvest and other budding rivals soon broke Shaw’s virtual monopoly on the movie business.
The fixation on cost was not Shaw’s only weakness. Asked what his favourite films were, he once said, with a deadpan face, “I particularly like movies that make money.” The reply wasn’t a joke, but a give-away to his other obsession: wealth accumulation. Shaw certainly realised his lifelong goal. His business empire was worth an estimated $3.5 billion in 2007. But while profit was a powerful incentive for Shaw, the narrow, exclusive focus also signified an unadventurous strategy in film making.
With his conservative mindset, Shaw had built a movie and TV industry that focused on generating cash and cash alone. For Shaw, film making was purely a business model, a production-line make-belief factory that produces formulaic products. He didn’t really care about the quality of the movies and TV shows his business churned out. So long as they drew the masses into his movie theatres, he was happy.
I wouldn’t begrudge him for amassing a fortune. He was, after all, a businessman. But less forgivable is Shaw’s lack of ideas and imagination. For decades, his studio produced a never-ending stream of safe, profitable staples —one-dimensional kung-fu action flicks (habitually with the heroes/heroines beating the villains/evil enemies to a pulp), tear-jerking melodramas, worn-out Cantonese operas and juvenile farces. Those were his trusty recipes for success, and he religiously stood by them. His studio rarely ventured to make films with a difference to add class to Hong Kong cinema. With the accent on output, stagecraft (or production value as film makers call it) in the Shaw Brothers movies was sloppy, and quality was often found wanting.
But quality is vital, even in a profit-oriented business. Think about Hollywood or film centres elsewhere. Producers there don’t only bank on dependable, cash-generating movies. Much as they love safe returns, they understand that long-term survival hinges on refinements in production value and the injection of creative energy and original ideas into the mix. In embracing artistry, they take risks. Sometimes the effort flops, but once in a while, the result is a breakthrough, an enormous success that makes waves. That, in a nutshell, is how cinema renews itself. In the absence of vigor, the entertainment business inevitably sinks into a morass.
Oblivious of the peril, Shaw and his imitators stepped up the mass production of celluloid junk. When disaster struck in the late 1990’s, Hong Kong cinema went into a steep decline as audiences, bored with the usual fare, deserted en masse. In terms of output or box office receipts, it is now a pale shadow of its former self. Rather than reflect on what has gone wrong, the industry continues to look for convenient scapegoats. Film piracy and changing lifestyles, among other things, are routinely blamed for its misfortune. Though the rot has set in long ago, film makers keep trying to revive the comatose zombie with tired formulas and used-up genres.
It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that the sorry state of Hong Kong cinema is at least partly down to Shaw’s legacy. Thanks to his commercial success, he has been immensely influential. Shaw left behind him a tradition of film making that, though way past its expiry date, is still faithfully followed by scores of local film makers. While his friends and associates may disagree, any attempt to reverse the decline of the HK cinema must come to terms with this dead weight. An impartial assessment of Shaw’s impact, warts and all, is long overdue.
A separate issue is the quality of reporting. In unanimously praising Shaw, the local press is doing itself a disservice. The unreserved flattery also raises a question. Hong Kong may have a free press, but does it have a vibrant media that does its job impartially? No sensible person would dispute the importance of a free press, but the reporting of Shaw’s death shows that a free media alone is no guarantee of good journalism.