It's a Shaw thing
CHENG PEI-PEI eyes the gulf between our sofa and the large coffee table in the middle of the conference room. 'I think we could do with it being closer,' she suggests. I agree, and as we carry the table over, I can't help but notice the 45-degree angle it slants towards me. Cheng is finding it a lot easier to lift than I am.
The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star clearly packs a punch 40 years after making her debut in cinema. She looks fantastic, I tell her. 'I like to look after myself with a walk in the morning,' she shrugs, elegantly setting her end of the table down.
Wang Yu arrives. We could have used the actor, who rose to fame in seminal 1978 kung fu classic, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, for our brief bout of furniture re-arranging. This is confirmed when he invites me to press his flexed biceps. Like Cheng, he has preserved his fitness, first witnessed in the Shaw Brothers classics that made them both stars. Cheng and Wang are promoting the re-issue of a catalogue that remains Hong Kong cinema's crowning achievement. Having enjoyed an exhaustive brush-up for a DVD release last year, the classics are now the subject of a 23-film retrospective that is one of the highlights of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.
While Shaw Brothers had been making films in Hong Kong since the 1930s, it really hit its golden period after building a mammoth studio complex in 1958 to replace its ageing Nanyang movie lot. Recruiting talent from all over Asia and churning out films at a remarkable rate, the company quickly earned the tag 'Hollywood of the East'. With a dozen indoor sound stages and outdoor sets complete with mock palaces (and even a replica chunk of the Great Wall), the studios were able to create movies that traversed time and space.
This was crucial to their popularity, according to Wang: 'With so many films in so many different genres, they are bound to make more connections. There's also a sense of mystique. The Shaw movies haven't been so exposed on TV, so they retain a certain value. That's a major reason why people find them refreshing.'
Cheng is a graduate of Shaw's acting academy, the Southern Drama Group, enrolling after moving from Shanghai at the age of 15. 'I originally wanted to be a dancer,' she recalls. 'I'd been doing ballet since I was eight, but the school enabled me to see that dance and martial arts are similar. My background enabled me to make the transition.' After one year of coaching in body movement, voice delivery, singing and dancing, she performed a number of roles, including the title role in Lady General Hua Mulan, before landing her big break. King Hu's 1966 masterpiece Come Drink With Me is one of the most important contributions to the Shaw canon, in that it set the template for what was to become the modern martial arts film.
With a style of action choreography based on Beijing opera, Come Drink With Me's realistic violence was matched by a pioneering use of earthy tones and colouring more akin to an oil painting, giving the film a sense of mythical weight. King Hu, a prominent actor/screenwriter at the time, was commissioned by Shaw Brothers to make the first swordfighting film built around a female lead. It was a bold step in a period when Hollywood action heroes were virtually all male.
Yet for Cheng, the only discrimination in the Asian industry was positive. 'From that point onwards, tough roles - better roles - were given to females. After Bruce Lee the world changed, of course, but before that I always had the main lead role. Most directors encouraged me to take those roles to new heights.'
Computer-perfected fantasies such as The Matrix would not exist without the influence of films such as Come Drink With Me. Cheng's portrayal of the heroine, Golden Swallow, is a dazzling combination of martial arts dexterity and feminine beauty. Crouching Tiger pays homage to that with its rooftop fight and, more directly, Zhang Ziyi's celebrated restaurant-trashing scene, recreated from Cheng's moment 35 years previously. That Cheng starred in both bookended Hollywood's debt to the pioneering achievements of such Shaw Brothers movies.
Stars such as Cheng and Wang were blissfully unaware of the ground they were breaking at the time of filming. 'We were all having so much fun we weren't really conscious of the outside world,' Wang says. 'We all lived in a dormitory at the time, so we weren't very in touch with what was going on. Now young people are fully aware of their success and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing.'
By today's standards, wages were low. Actors earned $400 per month for their services, which sometimes involved shooting three films back to back. 'These days, money is spent on the actors, not the script,' adds Wang.
With the industry in a slump, retrospectives such as this provide a welcome dose of nostalgia, although Cheng believes there are many reasons to be cheerful. 'Choreographers who worked with me on films 40 years ago have more experience than anyone - that's why Hollywood has hired them directly. The talent is saving itself for bigger, better opportunities.'
Both are pleased to see the films revived. 'My first Shaw Brothers movie was in 1963, so it does seem funny to be promoting them again, but in a good way,' admits Cheng. 'It's exciting for us to get this chance so many years later.' Indeed, it is clear that both are thrilled when given the opportunity to talk about one of the few relics from Hong Kong's past that looks set to be enshrined in its future.