There was no mistaking the global attention given to Sir Run Run Shaw’s death on Tuesday. Aside from his great philanthropic work, the movie mogul was one of the leading (if not foremost) pioneers of Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, most notably co-founding the Shaw Brothers Studio and later TVB. Monumental in shaping the city’s cinematic identity at home and abroad, the studio produced some 40 films a year between 1960 and 1970.
Despite these golden years, films produced in Hong Kong dwindled in the 1990s as a result of numerous factors, including the Asian financial crisis, the boom in piracy and Hong Kong audiences’ clear preference for Hollywood blockbusters.
Aside from the emergence of visionaries such as John Woo and second-wavers Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-wai (who, incidentally, got his start at TVB as a production assistant), the future of Hong Kong cinema was and remains in dire straits. Millions of dollars are being sunk into the Hong Kong Film Development Council’s fund scheme, but as of last December it has approved funding for only 29. (Seventeen applications were withdrawn after approval.)
One only has to look across the border to see rapid growth within the industry; China is now the second-largest box office after the US.
Action-adventure flick Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, directed by Stephen Chow, grossed an impressive 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.5 billion) and many Chinese films are now being co-produced by Hollywood. Studios have opened all over the country but the question of whether Hong Kong’s industry has benefited is answered in the number of films made here last year: 43. That compares rather unfavourably with the 70 or so churned out annually in recent years.
Shaw’s obituary in The New York Times declared him the “Chinese-Movie Giant Of the Kung Fu Genre” but this sobriquet is less than satisfactory when you consider the plethora of other genres, including musicals and historical dramas, that he produced.
One notable instance is that in the year before 20th Century Fox’s mammoth Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor), Shaw Brothers produced The Magnificent Concubine, which went on to win the Grand Prix for Best Photography and Colour at Cannes in 1962.
Perhaps the fact that we associate Shaw with the kung fu film is because that is what proved popular in post-war, colonial Hong Kong.
People wanted pure and unadulterated escapism (preferably in technicolour). Today, with the surge in 24-hour information, illegal streaming and Netflix, we no longer need to flock to darkened auditoriums to watch a movie – though one should note that Hong Kong’s cinema-going pastime still hasn’t wavered in the least.
So what’s to be done?
Perhaps in remembering Shaw’s legacy, we may just find a way to shake up Hong Kong’s fading film industry.
Shaw was a pioneer in that he instinctively knew what people wanted – so what do we want in Hong Kong? What we need are producers who will take risks on lower-budget films with higher artistic integrity; ones that shift the emphasis away from the glitz, glamour and bloodshed, and bring it back to the simple craft of filmmaking – writing, acting and directing.
These are the foundations upon which we can save the industry. We should still have our kung fu, but with a little more heart, please.
More recently, director Flora Lau managed to assemble a stellar team, including Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer Christopher Doyle and veteran actress Carina Lau Ka-ling, for her Hong Kong-tinged Bends, which went into competition last year at Cannes. I read one interview where it was called “not your typical Hong Kong film”. There’s hope yet.
Jingan Young is a freelance writer and the first playwright commissioned to write in English for the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival