Golden Harvest's Raymond Chow recalls glory days of Hong Kong film

While the glory days of HK cinema under Golden Harvest are long gone, founder Raymond Chow has confidence in its future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 4:14am

Raymond Chow Ting-hsing strolls into what looks like a conference room at his Kowloon home with a tumbler in one hand and an iPad in the other. He is in good spirits, nodding and smiling to those in the room, who greet him with respect. Then he takes a seat at the end of a long table as if he is about to chair an important meeting.

The scene could easily be from the good old days when he was chairman of Golden Harvest, the legendary Hong Kong film studio that nurtured many of the city's brightest stars.

The fate of the studio he cofounded with Leonard Ho Koon-cheong parallels the destiny of Hong Kong - it began to thrive in the 1970s before reaching its golden era in the 1980s .

Golden Harvest was the closest thing to a film dynasty at a time when an authentic Hong Kong cinema had a global audience, before losing its identity to mainland co-productions.

Chow, however, dislikes the dynasty image. "My philosophy is to entertain people, to make people happy. Filmmaking also suits my way of thinking: I love freedom, and don't like being placed under restrictions."

From the establishment of the studio to its daring approaches to production and film-financing, Golden Harvest was all about breaking free from convention. The success of the studio might also shed some light on the struggles facing today's film industry in Hong Kong.

That success story is being retold in a Hong Kong Film Archive retrospective, "The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest", at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. A highlight of the event, the retrospective will screen 63 of the 600 films produced and financed by Golden Harvest over more than three decades. Chow will make a rare public appearance at an HKFA seminar today.

Compared with the glory days, when Golden Harvest made Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan not just movie stars but cultural icons, Hong Kong cinema has been losing its edge.

Of 52 films qualified to enter the Hong Kong awards this year, only 23 are strictly local productions, the rest being co-productions with the mainland. This is a significant drop compared with the 31 local films among the total of 54 in 2008.

On Monday, the Hong Kong Film Development Council said it was examining the idea of supporting not only young talent, but also well-known directors to help them produce potentially Oscar-winning films.

The council pointed to the example of Taiwan supporting Ang Lee's filming of Life of Pi, which won him his second Oscar as best director.

In Chow's heyday, of course, there was no such thing as government funding for the film industry. He relied instead on his entrepreneurial wits.

Born in Hong Kong in 1927, Chow launched his first media enterprise while still a high school student in Shanghai - a publication called Sports Weekly produced with a few classmates with a print run of about 1,000. After graduating with a journalism degree from Shanghai's St John's University, he returned to Hong Kong in 1949 to work as a reporter for the newly launched Hong Kong Tiger Standard.

The job's low pay, however, meant he had to take up part-time jobs to make ends meet. "At one time I was holding down seven jobs," Chow said. Eventually a better paying job came up with Voice of America.

His journalism experience paid off when he joined Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958, first as its publicity chief and later as head of the production department.

"News reporting was a very good training," he said. "A journalistic background allows you to be versatile."

Although Chow was a top lieutenant in Run Run Shaw's empire, the critical mindset he inherited from journalism and his love of creative freedom eventually saw him go out on his own.

"I had developed my way of thinking, but it wasn't my company," he said.

Unlike Shaw Brothers, which kept a close rein on its productions, Chow believed a studio should be free to collaborate with other filmmakers.

Chow founded Golden Harvest with Ho in 1970. The studio teamed up with independent production houses while maintaining the role of producer, exercising much greater flexibility than Shaw Brothers.

As an example of this independent spirit, Chow recalled filming The Way of Dragon on location in Rome. "There were just three of us - Bruce Lee, cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto and myself as producer.

"There was no crew," he laughed as he recalled the "indie" style filmmaking, even though Lee was already a big star by that time. "We had to sneak into the Colosseum for one scene."

Between 1978 and 1993, Chow ventured into films for Western audiences. One of the most remarkable successes was the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, based on the popular comic series of the same name, that grossed more than US$200 million worldwide.

During this time, his partner Ho remained in Hong Kong to look after the business, while Chow commuted to and from Los Angeles, which he visited 19 times in two years. The experience reaffirmed his belief in independent filmmaking.

"Most Hollywood films are independent productions. Major studios might distribute 20 to 30 films a year, but they only make a few themselves," Chow said.

"I saw that and wondered if it would be possible to do the same in Hong Kong? We could get the best ideas [from production companies] while the only things we had to sort out would be the financing, distribution and keeping track of the production."

Golden Harvest later developed a distribution network by building its own cinema circuit.

Chow said that before the opening up of the mainland, Hong Kong relied on regional markets such as Taiwan, Singapore and Southeast Asia because the home market was too small to support the city's film industry. "It was a miracle for Hong Kong to succeed," he said.

But, it was the native Hong Kong stories that gave Golden Harvest movies their global appeal. The success of Bruce Lee's kung fu films and Michael Hui Koon-man's social satires such as The Private Eyes (1976) in Japan surprised Chow.

He said he didn't originally want to release Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury (1972) in Japan, because of the film's anti-Japanese theme. But Japanese film pioneer Nagasama Kawakita, founder of the Toho company, saw it and decided to bring the film it to Japan against Chow's wishes. It was a box office hit.

After the success of Fist of Fury, Kawakita eyed Hui's comedies. "I thought they wouldn't like Michael's jokes. You simply can't translate the humour," Chow says. But he was wrong again.

Toho renamed Hui as Mr Boo and The Private Eyes became another box office success. Jackie Chan Kong-sang and Sammo Hung Kam-bo, on the other hand, rose to international stardom with their action films travelling to Japan and America.

Film Archive's curator Winnie Fu Wai-yee thinks that the films from Golden Harvest's golden era encapsulate certain Hong Kong social values. "Alas there's no such values in today's Hong Kong," she sighed.

Chow was more sanguine. "The change of environment [for filmmakers] prompted us to look at the market and find out what it is all about," he said.

Golden Harvest suffered a double blow in the late 1990s - the Asian financial crisis, and being forced out of its Hammer Hill studios when the government refused to renew its lease.

The first decade of the new century witnessed the decline of the studio, with losses on the books and fewer productions - a slump experienced across the Hong Kong film industry. Chow retired as chairman and in November 2007 sold his stake to the mainland's Chengtian Entertainment. In 2011 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Asian Film Awards.

The emergence of the mainland market - now the world's second-largest, with box office takings reported to be worth US$2.74 billion last year - had changed the game, Chow said, to something that more resembled the American domestic market.

But there is no straightforward formula for entering the mainland film market. Although Hong Kong-made Chinese-language films are now free from the quota system under the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (Cepa), the lack of film categorisation on the mainland means controversial content and politically sensitive elements in films are greatly limited.

Films come under strict scrutiny by censors, who often act in an unpredictable manner. One example is Mystery, recently named best film at the Asian Film Awards, which was approved by censors for screening in the Un Certain Regard section at last year's Cannes Film Festival. But the censors required three seconds and 23 frames to be darkened when it was released on the mainland last year, leading director Lou Ye to remove his name from the credits in protest.

Cepa might have given Hong Kong-mainland co-productions certain advantages, but these have come at a cost. Co-productions are required to offer a third of their leading roles to mainland actors. As established Hong Kong stars are needed to draw audiences, opportunities for new talent tend to go to mainland actors, reducing the chances for local actors and creating a succession problem for Hong Kong cinema.

Despite such problems, Chow believes producing films for the mainland doesn't have to mean a trade-off in creative freedom.

"There are plenty of reasons why a film doesn't make it to the big screen. A lot of times, it's not about whether the system rejects certain types of stories. Meeting the market's needs is also important," Chow said, saying that some companies did not want to distribute certain films simply because they were not suitable for the market.

The HKFA's Fu said filmmakers had to overcome the ideological and cultural barriers between the two places that meant productions such as Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria would not be shown across the border. The satirical comedy, which tells the story of a struggling film producer seeking funding from a mainland triad, features a heavy dose of Hong Kong colloquial humour and the city's own brand of foul language. The film was the city's second-highest-grossing local production last year, raking in more than HK$30 million, but censors were unimpressed.


"China is a very big place. If you can make the appropriate adjustments, it is the ideal market," Chow said. The growth of that market also meant the availability of new funding sources.

"It's a blessing for Hong Kong cinema," Chow said. "It's never had such a great opportunity."