In the 1970s, Bruce Lee and martial arts and kung fu movies changed the way fighting was presented in modern visual arts. In Western cinema, before Lee, fights were often disorderly fisticuffs with chairs broken over heads in saloons and pistols fired from the belt. Fights often served as a kind of visual climax of a scene or the movie itself. Since Lee's death in 1973, it can be argued that all films with fights have been influenced by kung fu movements in which fights have become more like dances with acrobatic jumps and circus tricks that are woven into the fabric of film.

Martial arts films are a subgenre of action films that emphasize, like the name says, martial arts fighting between characters. The fight scene are usually the films' primary appeal and often the storytelling and character development serve as framework on which the fighting is to attached. Martial arts films often have some kind of master-student relationship along with training scenes. Features of martial arts films include hand-to-hand combat, figting with weapons such as swords and staffs, stuntwork and choreographed movements Sometimes there are chases and the use of guns. Sub-genres of martial arts films include kung fu films, wuxia, karate films, and martial arts action-comedy films. Among the related genres are gun fu, jidaigeki and samurai films. [Source: Wikipedia]

Chinese Martial arts films originated in Shanghai in the 1920s. Referred to at the that time as “wuxia” films, they were based on popular novels and featured heroes from traditional tales and legends about super human swordsmen. Many martial arts films — particularly those in the wuxia genre —feature an object or text imbued with mystical powers or knowledge that everyone is trying to get their hands on. Haiyan Lee wrote in The China Beat: “In Crouching Tiger, Jade Fox steals the secret manual from her master because he would not transmit esoteric Wudang techniques to a female disciple. She then uses it clandestinely to train her young aristocratic mistress Jen to fight. However, she does not know that Jen is stealthily studying the text of themanual whereas she, being illiterate, can only make out the pictures. As a result, Jen blindsides Jade Fox when they are pitted against each other in a match. The assumption is that writing encodes greater cosmic-martial truth than image. Those who can read attain higher occult power than those who can only view.” [Source: Haiyan Lee, The China Beat, July 17, 2008]

“Variations of this idea can be found in most Chinese-language kungfu movies. The literary and martial arts are taken to be two sides of the same cosmic coin, or the Way. Both are said to be inspired by the tracks and movements of birds and beasts. Hence the same metaphors and protocols inform both the civil and martial domains, invariably urging the harmony of heaven, earth, and man. Zhang Yimou rehearses this idea to a fare-thee-well in Hero. In that movie, the king becomes enlightened of the essence of swordsmanship by mediating on the majestically rendered calligraphic character for ‘sword’. Such hyperbole can strike an uninitiated viewer as all very “mystical and kungfu-y.”

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History of Martial Arts Films

Martial arts films are generally associated with Asia although there can be plenty of fighting and martial activity in Hollywood and non-Asian films. Asian martial art films are known for putting more emphasis on fighting and action than on plot and character. That is not to say there are not martial arts films with complex plots and multi-layered characters . While these may appeal more to the Art House crowds, the most commercially successful films and the ones well received by fans tend to stress action with energy and creativity being poured into the practice, timing and choreography of the action. One of the earliest Hollywood movies to employ Asian-style martial arts was the 1955 film “Bad Day at Black Rock” in which Spencer Tracy engages in some not-very-realistic fight sequences with soft knifehand strikes. [Source: Wikipedia]

The famed, Oscar-winning Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is regarded as the pioneer of martial arts films. His 1943 directorial debut, “Sugata Sanshiro” is about a young man learning Judo and fighting against various Jujitsu practitioners. “Sugata Sanshiro, Part Two” (1945) features fights with boxers and karate practitioners is considered the first depiction of karate in cinema. His film "Seven Samurai" (1954) has some great fight scenes taking place in the pouring rain and mud.

Martial arts actors are usually martial artists or have undergone significant martial arts training. They often train in preparation for their roles. Over time action movie directors employed more stylized action and choreographed the action scenes and developed techniques like camera angles, editing tricks, stunt doubles, undercranking and wire work to make the fighting more impressive. In recent years computer-generated imagery has been used. Trampolines and springboards have been used to increase the height of jumps.

The martial arts film genre really began to take off in the 1970s and 1980s in the form of the hundreds of English-dubbed kung fu and ninja films produced by the Shaw Brothers, Godfrey Ho and other producers in Hong Kong. These films were widely broadcast on North American television. Classic include Drunken Master, The Big Boss, and One Armed Boxer. Hong Kong action cinema grabbed a global following with the rise of Bruce Lee in 1971 and continued to mid-1990s. Other major figures in the genre include Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen.

Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, and Hiroyuki Sanada starred in numerous karate and jidaigeki films from Japan during the 1970s and early 1980s. Hollywood-style martial arts films featured Chuck Norris, Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), Wesley Snipes, Gary Daniels, Mark Dacascos and Jason Statham. In the 2000s, Thailand's film industry was recognized as a player in the genre with the films of Tony Jaa. There are films produced in Vietnam and Indonesia. Among the most famous martial arts actresses are Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao and Cynthia Rothrock. Kung Fu Panda and the Matric can be considered martial arts films.

Wuxia (Chinese Martial Arts Fiction)

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story by Jin Yong, father
of martial arts fiction
Martial arts films grew out of wuxia, martial arts fiction. Wuxia, which literally means "martial heroes", is a genre of Chinese fiction involving the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although it has traditionally been a form of fantasy literature, it is popular that it has been adapted to opera, television series, many famous Kung Fu movies and even video games. The word wuxia is a compound wu ("martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá ("chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). Practitioners of the code of xia is often referred to as a xiákè ("follower of xia") or yóuxiá ("wandering xia"). In some translations, the martial hero is called a "swordsman" or "swordswoman" even though he or she may not necessarily wield a sword. [Source: Wikipedia]

The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. Chinese xia traditions can be compared to martial codes from other cultures, such as the Japanese samurai bushidō.

“Jianghu” is a an important concept in Chinese martial arts novels. British-Swedish translator Anna Holmwood, known for translating the works of Jin Yong, told the Global Times: "I tackled it [jianghu] as a constellation of terms that includes wulin [the world of martial arts] and xia [a core spirit of martial arts that promotes actions of integrity to stand up for the weak against bullies. On the one hand, jianghu [rivers and lakes] refers to a concrete place, the landscape of southern China, where historically the instruments of the Chinese imperial government haven't been able to penetrate as deeply." [Source: Huang Tingting, Global Times, November 9, 2017]

Kung Fu and Wuxia Films

Kung fu and wuxia films are considered subgenres of martial arts films. Like westerns in Hollywood they they identified with Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. The stories, plots and characters of kung fu movies have their roots in wuxia novels (See Below) and fiction published in Hong Kong. Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was based on the Wang Dulu series of wuxia novels. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to some definitions king fu movies are martial arts films with realistic fighting set in modern times while wuxia films use historical setting and ancient Chinese stories and myths to tell their action-related stories. Swordplay and weapons are more common in wuxia than kung-fu films, which emphasize unarmed combat.

The earliest wuxia films date back to the 1920s and were made in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Films directed by King Hu and produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio featured sophisticated action choreography, wire and trampoline stunts and acrobatics combined with sped-up camera techniques and editing tricks. The storylines came mostly from existing wuxia literature. Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang and Connie Chan are among the better known wuxia movie stars in the 1960s and 70s, when wuxia films were churned out by King Hu and the Shaw Brothers Studio. Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi all starred in wuxia films. Yuen Woo-ping was a pioneering choreographer who made creating action-sequences in wuxia films an art form.

The kung fu genre was born in Hong Kong as a backlash against the supernatural tropes of wuxia. One of its aims was to be more realistic. Early wuxia films featured shenguai (gods and demons) wuxia and martial arts. Wuxia producers used special effects and animated fight scenes to attract audiences. Interest in these films declined at least in part to cheap special effects and repetition of the same stories and fantasy cliches. Kung fu and wuxia fims ahve many similarities. The main characters, for example, abide by the norms of Chinese chivalry of the ancient youxia, the knight-errants of Chinese wuxia fiction.

The two-part “Adventures of Fong Sai-yuk Part 1 and Part 2 (1938–39) is considered the first kung fu film. It is about the adventures of folk hero Fong Sai-yuk. No surviving copies exist. Another pioneering series dramatized the life of Wong Fei-hung, a historical Cantonese martial artist. The first two films of the Wong series, directed by Wu Pang and starring Kwan Tak-hing, were released in 1949. The major innovation of the Wong Fei-hung films was its focus on realistic fighting or zhen gongfu. The fights were still choreographed, but were designed to be more believable. Tsui Hark's “Once Upon a Time in China”, with Jet Li playing Wong, was a 1990s revival of the Wong Fei-hung series.

Origin of Chinese Martial Arts Films

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In a review of the book “Fiery Cinema” by Weihong Bao, Jean Ma wrote: The years 1927-31 “saw a proliferation of huoshao pian, martial arts action films featuring conflagrant spectacular effects. Contravening the genre’s longstanding association with popular folk mythology and archaic superstition — an association forged in its own time and perpetuated in contemporary criticism — Bao documents the roots of the martial arts picture in the contemporaneous spheres of arts, philosophy, and science. Huoshao pian were the product of intermedial and transcultural interactions among the local film industry, modern stage drama, and Hollywood popular action films. They also took shape in an intellectual climate heavily influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson and wave theory in the physical sciences. In tracing the circulation of these cultural discourses across the realms of mass culture and high modernist aesthetics, the chapter lays the ground for the emergence of not only a film genre, but also a conception of cinema as a medium capable of awakening the viewer’s inner life and, concomitantly, of spectatorship as gongming/resonance, as a process of stirring vibrations and arousing empathetic responses. In this context, fire comes to the fore as a metaphor for arousal, transferences of energy, and the transformation of vital forces into action. [Source: Reviewed by Jean Ma, Stanford University, Jean Ma, MCLC Resource Center Publication, February, 2016; Book: “Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945"by Weihong Bao (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)]

“The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” (directed by Zhang Shichuan, 1928) is one of earliest wuxia films. Divided into 18 parts, and totaling around 27 hours, it was was one of the most successful Chinese pre-war films. Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker, wrote: Although the genre was instantly recognized as a commercial success by Chinese film pioneers, with films like Tianyi Studios’ (Shaw Brothers) earliest Wuxia films such as The Burning of Red Lotus Mountain in 1928, there hadn’t been much output through several decades of turmoil, until the 1980s, when there were a few emulations of Hong Kong kung fu films. [Source: RADII]

“Red Heroine” (directed by Wen Yimin, 1929) is another serialized film. Unique for its time, it features a female lead as a warrior seeking justice. Released during a high-point for the genre, Red Heroine proved to be influential for Wuxia genre to come. Cheng-Sim Lim, organizer, China Onscreen Biennial, wrote: Flying on clouds, appearing and disappearing in a flash, the female warrior, originally garbed in red according to the actress Fan Xuepeng who played her, swoops in to rescue damsels kidnapped by a lecherous warlord. Echoing perhaps Cecil B. DeMille’s dictum of giving audiences enough sin to ogle along with the morality, the warlord keeps a bevy of scantily clad women in his lair. [Source: RADII]

Kung Fu Movies in the 1970s

The kung fu genre reached its height in the 1970s in Hong Kong when the economy there was booming. It overtook the popularity of the new school (xinpai) wuxia films that dominated Hong Kong’s film scene in the 1950s and 1960s, when wuxia was widely read in newspaper serials and these serials were adapted to films. New wuxia was a response to the kung fu dramatizations of Wong Fei-hung and brought back the supernatural themes of traditional wuxia cinema. Competition between the Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, and Seasonal Films studios stimulated the growth of kung fu as well as wuxia films. Among the classics from the early 1970s are “The Chinese Boxer (1970) directed by Wang Yu and “Vengeance” (1970) directed by Chang Cheh. These are considered the first films of the resurgent kung fu genre, which in turn was a response to new wuxia. Chang Cheh was famed director or martial arts films in the 1970s. The best martial arts of the 1970s in the opinion of many is “Dirty Ho”, directed by Liu Chia-liang and starring Gordon Liu and Lo Lieh. Time magazine called it full of “buoyant virility and pinwheeling panache.”[Source: Wikipedia]

Kung fu films began reaching an international audiences with Bruce Lee's first feature-length film, “The Big Boss” in 1971. “The Big Boss” was followed by five more films, the best known of which was “Enter the Dragon.” Bruce Lee began a trend of employing real martial artists as actors in martial arts films. The anti-imperialist, anti-white and anti-European themes of Lee’s films appealed to groups that felt marginalized and contributed to his popularity in Southeast Asia and among urban African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Audiences identified with Lee's role as a minority figure struggling against and overcoming prejudice, social inequality, and racial discrimination. Kung fu films were given another international boost with the popular of the Kung Fu television series, which ran for three seasons beginning in 1972. This American Western action-adventure series starred David Carradine playing the character Kwai.

The kung fu genre was dealt a serious setback by Bruce Lee's sudden death in 1973 and declined after that. Also in 1973, the Hong Kong stock market crashed. During the recession that followed audiences in Hong Kong began favoring comedies and satires. Out of this grew the kung fu comedy which appeared in the late 1970s and merged martial arts fighting with Cantonese comedy. The films made by Lau Kar-leung,Yuen Woo-ping, and Sammo Hung all fit into this trend. Yuen's Drunken Master (1978), which mixed slapstick comedy with martial arts, was a financial success and made Jackie Chan a major Hong Kong movie star. Chan had trained at the China Drama Academy, a Peking opera school operated by Yu Jim-yuen, which introduced of combat and dance from Beijing into Cantonese opera. Peking Opera-influenced the martial arts of the kung fu comedies by making the figh scenes more fluid and acrobatic than traditional kung fu films. In the 1980s, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung made a number kung fu films set in urban environments with an emphasis on elaborate stunts.

Hong Kong Style and Martial Arts Films

Martial arts films are regarded as Hong Kong genera rather than a Chinese one. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China it was a crime to watch a movie or even read about kung fu or the martial arts. Time film critic Richard Corliss wrote that Hong Kong films often feature "a frantic camera style, with slow motion, quick cutting, abrupt flashbacks — all to advance the art or to keep the moviegoer awake or just for the hell of it."

The Hong film expert David Bordwell wrote, "What Western fans consider 'over the top' on Hong Kong movies is a partly a richness of stylistic delivery — an effort to see how delightful or thrilling one can make the mix of dialogue, music, sound effects, light color, color and movement...This delight in expressive technique in a local elaboration of the sensuous abundance sought by popular filmmakers everywhere."

The arrival of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were critical to the development of martial arts films. The “First Lady of Kung Fu” Angela Mao Ying was discovered at the age of 17 in a 1970 Hong Kong movie, Angry River.

Hong Kong Fight Scene Choreography

Highly technical Hong Kong fight scene choreography is called "Wuxia Pian" and the master of this form is Yuen Wo Ping, who has directed more than 30 films including the Jackie Chan classics “Snake in the Eagle's Shadow” (1978) and “Drunken Master” (1979) and choreographed the fight signs in “The Matrix”. He has also worked as an actor, producer and screenwriter.

Yuen choreographed the famous scenes in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. He used similar techniques for the opening rooftop scenes in “Fire Dragon” (1994). The forest scene were inspired in part by the warriors on flaming poles in “Iron Monkey” (1993). “Wing Chun” with Michelle Yeoh features an amazing fight over a plate of tofu. In “Line of Duty 4" there is a spectacular fight on a speeding ambulance. Also check out Jet Li's scenes in “The Tai Chi Master” and Samoo Hung in “Magnificent Butcher”.

Yuen once said, "If I'm not 100 percent focused at every moment, someone could end up dead." Before filming of “The Matrix” began Yuen trained Keuna Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss for four months on Hong Kong style fight techniques.

Yuen's brother Cheung Yam choreographed the fight scenes in “Charlie's Angels” and many Hong Kong films. Both brothers learned their trade from their father Simon Yuen Suiu Tin, himself a celebrated choreographer and action actor.

Modern Kung Fu Films

Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studio films entered Western markets in the 1970s. Films like “The Big Boss” (“Fists of Fury”), “King Boxer” (“Five Fingers of Death”) and “Enter the Dragon” were box office successes in the U.S. and Europe. By the 1980s and 1990s, American cinema had absorbed the martial arts influences of Hong Kong cinema. “The Matrix”, directed by the Wachowskis, and featuring choreography by martial arts director Yuen Woo-Ping, was considered a high point of this transition. Martial arts stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li left Hong Kong to star in American films. [Source: Wikipedia]

In recent years the realism of the original kung fu genre has given way to the widespread use of computer-generated imagery, which allows actors no martial arts training to perform in kung fu films. Wuxia films experienced a revival of sorts with the films of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. Kung fu comedies remain popular staples of Hong Kong cinema. The modern master of this form, Stephen Chow, has had a number box office smashes like Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which combine kung fu fighting, computer-generated images and comedy. The fight scenes in Kung Fu Hustle, were choreographed by martial arts directors Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping. Donnie Yen, who emerged during the early 1990s in Jet Li's “Once Upon a Time in China II”, is currently Hong Kong's highest-paid actor. He has starred in the Ip Man trilogy and “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.”

Run Run Shaw

Poster for Shaolin Temple 2
Run Run Shaw (1907-2014) is credited with popularizing martial arts and kung ku film and putting Hong Kong on the cinematic map. Jonathan Kandell of the New York Times described him as a colorful Hong Kong media mogul whose name was synonymous with low-budget Chinese action and horror films — and especially with the wildly successful kung fu genre, which he is largely credited with inventing. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

“Born in China, Mr. Shaw and his older brother, Run Me, were movie pioneers in Asia, producing and sometimes directing films and owning lucrative cinema chains. His companies are believed to have released more than 800 films worldwide. After his brother’s death in 1985, Mr. Shaw expanded his interest in television and became a publishing and real estate magnate as well. For his philanthropy, much of it going to educational and medical causes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with public expressions of gratitude by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

“Mr. Shaw enjoyed the zany glamour of the Asian media world he helped create. He presided over his companies from a garish Art Deco palace in Hong Kong, a cross between a Hollywood mansion and a Hans Christian Andersen cookie castle. Well into his 90s he attended social gatherings with a movie actress on each arm. And he liked to be photographed in a tai chi exercise pose, wearing the black gown of a traditional mandarin. Asked what his favorite films were, Mr. Shaw, a billionaire, once replied, “I particularly like movies that make money.”

Shaw died in 2014 at the age of 106. His first wife, Lily Wong Mee-chun, died in 1987. He is survived by his second wife, Mona; and by two sons and two daughters from his first marriage. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: Shaw started with one cinema in pre-second world war Singapore: by the time Japan invaded, he had more than 130 houses. After the war he moved operations to Hong Kong, spotting a market dominated by foreign films and sub-standard local productions. When he saw a picture from his studio that was no good, he would throw it away and start again. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian:“ He had completed the virtuous circle of Chinese businessman turned philanthropist, coming a long way from his single cinema in prewar Shanghai. He was only known to have made one mistake in his life: he had failed to spot the talent potential of the kung fu king Bruce Lee. But he never made the bigger mistake of taking political sides on China's offshore island. "Politics, I don't understand much," he said. "What I want is leave us alone, let us get on." [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

Run Run Shaw’ Early Life

Run Run Shaw was born Shao Yifu in 1907 into a family of businessmen in Ningbo in Zhejiang Province on China's eastern coast. Ningbo was known for generations as a place people migrated into and out of. As a child, he moved to Shanghai, where his father ran a profitable textile business. According to some Hong Kong news media sources, Run Run and Run Me were English-sounding nicknames the father gave his sons as part of a family joke that played on the similarity of the family name to the word rickshaw. In the mid-1920s, four of the six Shaws brothers became involved in films after the eldest, Runje, acquired a theatre as a bad debt. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2013; [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

Shaw left Shanghai in 1927 and moved to Singapore, where he opened a chain of 137 movie theaters in Malaysia. Three days before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941, Shaw and his brother buried their gold, jewelry and currency in their garden. After the war they dug it up. "The pearls were no good; never bury pearls," he told Newsweek. "But everything else was okay: the jade, the diamonds, the paper money."

Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: Evincing little interest in the family business, Run Run and Run Me turned instead to entertainment. The first play they produced was called “Man From Shensi,” on a stage, as it turned out, of rotten planks. As the brothers often told the story, on opening night the lead actor plunged through the planks, and the audience laughed. The Shaws took note and rewrote the script to include the incident as a stunt. They had a hit, and in 1924 they turned it into their first film.

“After producing several more movies, the brothers decided that their homeland, torn by fighting between Nationalists and Communists, was too unstable. The competition was also very stiff in the film business. In 1927 they moved to Singapore, which was then part of British colonial Malaya. Besides producing their own films in Singapore, the brothers imported foreign movies and built up a string of theaters. Their business boomed until the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula in 1941 and stripped their theaters and confiscated their film equipment. But according to Run Run Shaw, he and his brother buried more than $4 million in gold, jewelry and currency in their backyard, which they dug up after World War II and used to resume their careers. In Singapore and later Hong Kong, the Shaws distributed their films to circumvent the boycott organised by competitors, and set up their own studios.

Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong

right With the rise of Hong Kong as the primary market for Chinese films, Run Run Shaw moved there with his brother Runmein 1959, while a third brother Runde stayed behind looking after their Singapore business. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: This was the beginning of a phase of mass-scale lavish production. In the first full year he produced 20 Mandarin films and 12 Cantonese at the Shaw studio in Clear Water Bay. Now it was Run Run's turn to take on the opposition, waging fierce competitive battle with the Cathay Organisation. By the late 60s he had swept the field, shifting the focus from kung fu to sword-fight films and back again, to match changes in film-going fashion. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: “In Hong Kong, Run Run Shaw created Shaw Movietown, a complex of studios and residential towers where his actors worked and lived. Until then, the local industry had turned out 60-minute films with budgets that rarely exceeded a few thousand dollars. Shaw productions ran up to two hours and cost as much as $50,000 — a lavish sum by Asian standards at the time. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

“The 70s were the high tide for film-making as overseas Chinese communities became more affluent. There was a shift from old-fashioned Cantonese movies to more contemporary themes — including a surprising amount of sex — in Mandarin. Run Run ran his empire with a tight hand, judging the exact moment when to change. He also took key decisions on stories, scripts and casting.

Run Run Shaw’s Hong Kong Films

Shaw launched the careers of stars such as Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung. Shaw Brothers Studios produced almost 1,000 films and brought kung fu movies into the popular mainstream. Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Shaw went on to plumb the so-called dragon-lady genre with great commercial success. Movies like “Madame White Snake” (1963) and “The Lady General” (1965) offered sexy, combative, sometimes villainous heroines, loosely based on historical characters. And by the end of the 1960s, he had discovered that martial-arts films in modern settings could make even more money. “His “Five Fingers of Death” (1973), considered a kung fu classic, was followed by “Man of Iron” (1973), “Shaolin Avenger” (1976) and many others. Critics dismissed the films as artless and one-dimensional, but spectators crowded into the theaters to cheer, laugh or mockingly hiss at the action scenes. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “No one would say that his films were high art. In Kiss of Death (1973), a teenage girl is raped and infected with a virulent form of venereal disease: she then takes revenge on her attackers. But his studios also turned out dozens of "family films" in which virtue is defended to either a happy or bitter end. Period dramas from famous Chinese classical tales, such as The Water Margin (1972), were popular too. So were history films featuring the decline of dynasties, scheming eunuchs and self-sacrificing concubines.[Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

“By the 70s, Run Run's 46-acre Shaw Movie Town studio was known worldwide and he had developed profitable side deals with Hollywood studios and even one with the Hammer horror studio in Britain that resulted in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), among others. One of Shaw's best-known US films was the sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982). Every year he chose 40 applicants out of over 2,000 hopefuls from all over Asia, coaching his starlets personally. He was happy to appear in public with one or more on his arm.

Run Run Shaw’s Empire

Run Run Shaw was reputed to have a larger personal fortune than any film-maker in the world. Films emerged from the studio at the rate of 40 a year. At one time about 1.5 million people saw a Shaw film each week in Hong Kong or one of his outlets in Japan, Hawaii and the US and Canadian Chinatowns. Run Run and Run Me established the Shaw Organization in 1926 and the Shaw Studios (formerly South Seas Film studio) in 1930. In 1967, Shaw established the famous Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) station in Hong Kong, and it grew into a multi-billion dollar TV empire. TVB set the stage for numerous television sitcoms, drama series, documentaries and singing performances, as well as "Enjoy Yourself Tonight," a variety show similar to "Saturday Night Live." Shaw owned many businesses throughout the world, including a stake in Macy's and Canada's Shaw Tower at Cathedral Place. [Source: IMDb]

Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: “To ensure that his films were amply distributed, Mr. Shaw’s chain of cinemas grew to more than 200 houses in Asia and the United States. “We were like the Hollywood of the 1930s,” he said. “We controlled everything: the talent, the production, the distribution and the exhibition.” In Hong Kong, Run Run Shaw created Shaw Movietown, a complex of studios and residential towers where his actors worked and lived. Until then, the local industry had turned out 60-minute films with budgets that rarely exceeded a few thousand dollars. Shaw productions ran up to two hours and cost as much as $50,000 — a lavish sum by Asian standards at the time. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: Run Run moved smartly with the times to become much more than a producer of money-spinning but mostly pot-boiling films. He spotted the potential for commercial television precisely at the point when cinema-going started to decline. Setting up Hong Kong's second TV network — TVB — in 1972 he was able simultaneously to establish a new outlet for his studio's productions. Shaw Movie Town became effectively Shaw TV Town. TVB became the most popular station in Hong Kong, with an even bigger audience (using illegal aerials) in neighbouring Guangdong province. 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. Run Run was now the executive chairman of an Asia-wide communications empire — still located among the old film sets on Clear Water Bay Road. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

Kandell wrote: Shaws investments in Asian television were to prove even more lucrative than his movie productions. TVB soon gained control of 80 percent of the Hong Kong market. TVB churned out 12 hours of its own programming a day, much of it soap operas and costume dramas that riveted Chinese television viewers on the mainland and throughout Southeast Asia.

“In later years, the aging mogul himself seemed in need of help to keep his media empire intact. Concerned with the rise of cable and satellite television, he sold a 22 percent stake in TVB to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1993. Mr. Shaw had intended to maintain control over his media business by balancing his one-third share in TVB against Mr. Murdoch’s 22 percent and the 24 percent held by Robert Kuok, one of Hong Kong’s richest entrepreneurs. But the balance of power shifted when Mr. Murdoch sold his equity to Mr. Kuok shortly afterward. Then, in 1996, in Hong Kong’s first case of a hostile takeover, Mr. Kuok forced Mr. Shaw to sell him his shares in TVE, the lucrative publishing, music and real estate subsidiary of TVB. The deal reduced Mr. Shaw’s TVB stake to 23 percent.

“Mr. Shaw’s business situation was also hindered by his inability to groom credible successors. His sons, Vee Meng and Harold, were at one time heavily involved in the family enterprises, but their relationship with him had become strained. Even after turning 90, Mr. Shaw maintained a powerful presence in the Hong Kong film world through his control of Shaw Studios. But a newer generation of independent producers came to dominate the Hong Kong market with their own violent brand of police and gangster films.

Shaw didn’t resign from his executive positions at TVB until 2011 when he was 103. The Economist reported at that time: Shaw "appears to be retiring in peace. On January 26th he announced that he would sell his controlling stake in TVB, Hong Kong’s largest television network, for more than $1 billion. It was the last public link to an empire that once included the largest private film studio in the world. Mr Shaw retired from active management on his 100th birthday, in favour of a much younger manager, his then 77-year-old second wife, Mona Fong." [Source: The Economist]

Run Run Shaw’s Philanthropy

Shaw has donated billions of dollars to charities, schools and hospitals. As a result, many Hong Kong buildings were named after him. He was the founder of the Shaw Prizes, which mark achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Shaw himself has also made regular appearances in TV shows and programs from TVB, including their Chinese New Year celebration programs. During these programs, Shaw would often lead an "awakening" ceremony that precedes the famous Chinese Lion Dance. Shaw lead this tradition for many years. [Source: IMBd]

Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: “As his fortune grew, Mr. Shaw donated generously to hospitals, orphanages and colleges in Hong Kong, for which he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974 and a knighthood in 1977. In 1990 he donated 10 million pounds to help establish the Run Run Shaw Institute of Chinese Affairs at Oxford University, where his four children had studied. In 2004 he established the Shaw Prize, an international award for research in astronomy, mathematics and medicine. As Hong Kong’s days as a British colony dwindled, Mr. Shaw stepped up his philanthropy in China. He contributed more than $100 million to scores of universities on the mainland and raised money in support of Chinese victims of floods and other natural disasters. Chinese leaders toasted him for his generosity at banquets in Beijing. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

“Mr. Shaw’s philanthropy did not extend to the United States, but he was once viewed as a white knight in New York. In 1991, when Macy’s was on the verge of bankruptcy, he bought 10 percent of its preferred shares for $50 million, becoming one of the largest shareholders in R. height: Macy & Company. “The investment had a personal aspect. Ten years earlier, Mitchell Finkelstein, the son of Macy’s chief executive, Edward S. Finkelstein, had married Hui Ling, a Shaw protégée who appeared in many of his movies. Mr. Shaw met the older Finkelstein at the wedding, and they became friends.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: In the post-Mao Zedong era Run Run also began to insure politically with the mainland, donating millions of dollars to build schools and hospitals, especially in his native Ningbo. The influence of the "Shanghai clique" who had fled to Hong Kong in 1949 was waning: Run Run belonged to the "Ningbo clique" which was on the rise. One of its members was a shipping owner called Tung Chee-hwa — who would become Hong Kong's Beijing-picked chief executive at the handover in 1997. In 1995 Run Run and Tung joined a select group of Hong Kong tycoons to visit Beijing for a briefing from China's then president, Jiang Zemin. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

Golden Harvest: Run Run Shaw’s Rival

left Jonathan Kandell wrote in the New York Times: Other Hong Kong producers, directors and actors called Mr. Shaw’s methods iron-fisted. In 1970, Raymond Chow, a producer with Mr. Shaw’s company, Shaw Brothers, left to form his own company, Golden Harvest, which gave more creative and financial independence to top directors and stars. Mr. Chow’s biggest success, and Mr. Shaw’s most notable loss, was his decision to bankroll Bruce Lee. Mr. Lee initially approached Shaw Brothers, which turned down his demand for a long-term contract of $10,000 per film. Golden Harvest then offered Mr. Lee creative control and profit-sharing. “The Big Boss,” better known as “Fists of Fury” (1971), was Bruce Lee’s first film with Golden Harvest, and it broke all Hong Kong box-office records. Other big-name actors and directors flocked to Golden Harvest, breaking Shaw Brothers’ virtual monopoly. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

Golden Harvest existed from 1970 to 2009 when Raymond Chow sold it and it became Orange Sky Golden Harvest (OSGH), which still exists today but doesn’t make films. Under Chow it became a Hong-Kong-based film production, distribution, and exhibition giant, dominating Hong Kong cinema from the 1970s to the 1980s and playing a major role in introducing Hong Kong action films to Western markets, especially those by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1973, Golden Harvest entered into a pioneering co-production with Hollywood for the English-language Bruce Lee film, “Enter the Dragon”, a global hit made with the Warner Brothers studio and Concord Production Inc. Following Lee's death, Golden Harvest had success with Hui Brothers' comedies such as “Games Gamblers Play” (1974), “The Last Message” (1975), “The Private Eyes” (1976), “The Contract” (1978) and “Security Unlimited” (1981).

Golden Harvest surpassed the Shaw Brothers as Hong Kong's dominant studio by the end of the 1970s and retained that position into the 1990s. Its greatest asset for years was that from the 1980s until very recently, it produced almost all of Jackie Chan’s films. It also produced a number of films with Jet Li and Donnie Yen as well as “The Cannonball Run” and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” trilogy in the United States.

Influential early Golden Harvest films including “Fast Sword” [Duo ming jin jian] (1971); “Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman” (1971); “Invincible Sword (1971); “One Armed Boxer”(1972) and “Hapkido” [“Lady Kung Fu”] (1972) along with the Bruce Lee films “The Big Boss” [“Fists of Fury”] (1971) and “Way Of The Dragon” [“Return of The Dragon”] (1972)

Among the big Golden Harvest hots were “Iron Fisted Monk (1977); “Prodigal Son”; (1980)“Once Upon A Time In China” (1992) with Jet Li and “Blade” (1995) along with the Jack Chan hits “The Young Master” (1980)’; “ Project ‘A’” (1983); “Police Story” (1985); “Police Story 2" (1988); “Police Story 3" [Supercop] (1992); “Drunken Master 2" (1994); “Rumble In The Bronx” (1994) and “Who Am I?” (1997)

Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple (on Mount Song, near Dengfeng and Luoyang, 80 kilometers west of Zhengzhou) is where many Hong Kong action movies have been set and where the "Grasshopper" character played by David Carradine in the 1970s Kung Fu television series reportedly learned his tricks. Shaolin literally means "Monastery in the Woods of Mount Shaoshi." Shifu Shi Yan Ming is credited with introducing Shaolin kung fu to the United States. Trained as a Shaolin Temple warrior monk in China, he was on a tour of the U. S. in 1992 when he defected. By 1994, he had moved to New York City where he opened USA Shaolin Temple and began training students, including Wu-Tang Clan.

“Shaolin Temple” (directed by Hsin-Yen Chang, 1982) popularized the myth of the Shaolin school of kung fu and its fighting monks, and also gave Jet Li his first major movie role. Peter Shiao, CEO and Founder of Immortal Studios, said: This film brought all of China into the wuxia genre and an important part of its cultural past, when it was still a nation and people who needed to revisit its own great history and legacy. [Source: RADII]

Shaolin Templei s reputed to be 'the Number One Temple under Heaven' and is the cradle of the Shaolin martial arts such as Shaolin Cudgel and Shaolin Gongfu (boxing). But the temple is not only the birthplace of Kung Fu it also a place of importance in the history of religion in China. In A.D. 527, the celebrated Indian monk named Batuo (Bodhhidarma) founded Chan Buddhism, the precursor of Zen Buddhism after spending nine years staring at a wall and achieving enlightenment. He also is credited with creating the basic movement of Shaolin kung fu by imitating the movements of animals and birds. According to one he invented kung fu to counteract the effects of extended periods of meditation.

Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee is a legend of Hong Kong film. Although his life and film career were short he single-handedly created the martial arts film genre and has been the genre's most lasting star. He also was the first to put Hong Kong on the map in international film. His films continue to be watched in almost every country in the world. In Hong Kong they call him “Little Dragon.”

Joel Stein wrote in Time, "In an America where the Chinese were still stereotyped as meek house servants and railroad workers, Bruce Lee was all steely sinew, threatening stare and cocky pointy fingers---a Clark Kent who didn't need to change outfits...He was the redeemer, not only for the Chinese but for all the geeks and dorks and pimpled teenage masses that went up to the theaters to see his action films. He was David, with spin-kicks and flying leaps more captivating than any slingshot."

Lee honed his craft as a martial arts instructor in the U.S. before making his debut in the short-lived TV series The Green Hornet. Struggling to break into Hollywood, he returned to his hometown Hong Kong, where he catapulted to global fame with hits like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury before passing away in 1972 at age 32 from swelling of the brain.

Jet Li

right Jet Li has been called the Fred Astaire of Hong Kong action film. He is known for his lightning fast moves and inventive choreography. He has been making movies since 1982. The “Once Upon a Time in China” series made him a Hong Kong superstar.He was 46 in 2009. He has made kung fu movies in both mainland China and Hong Kong. He lives in Shanghai.

Jet Li was born Li Lian-Jie. He began studying wushu at the age of 7 and eventually became a five-time all-China wushu champion. In 1974, he performed on the White House lawn in front of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as part of the People's Republic junior wushu team.

Jet Li has been married twice, he said his first marriage was done out of obligation and never developed into loving relationship. His second marriage to his current wife, actress Nina Li, he said, was out of love. On his first wife he said, “In terms of how much emotion each person devoted, she maybe gave 90 percent or 80 percent. At most I gave...I still haven’t figured it out. She was a classmate two years his elder. “My family was poor,” he said. “Her family was well-off. She often took care of me. That’s how it happened. I didn’t know what love was.”

Li married Nina Li in September 1999. They have two daughters. “You realize, “I put myself out there. I can give up my fame and success, give up my status, give up my money. I’m willing to die for her.” You realize this is love.”

Jet Li has said the he struggles with love scenes in his movies because has naturally introverted personality. On his web log he said, “Every time I start a move I don’t know how to have a conversation with the female lead. I’m rather introverted.”

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan was the first significant action hero and martial arts performer to emerge from Hong Kong after the death of Bruce Lee in 1973. Drunken Master (1978), which mixed slapstick comedy with martial arts and was directed byYuen Woo-ping, was a financial success and made Jackie Chan a major Hong Kong movie star. The films of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung integrated techniques from Peking Opera, which both had trained in prior to their work as stuntmen and extras in the Hong Kong studio system.

Jackie Chan is arguably the most well-known, working Hong Kong actor and the man who best personifies Hong Kong action movies. Chan has a huge cult following and some people argue that he is the most popular movie star in the world. “Drunken Master” made him a star.

Jackie Chan is perhaps Asia’s wealthiest and best-known entertainer. He was the biggest box office draw in Asia and became and reasonably big star in Hollywood too. He has appeared in more than 100 films since his debut in 1962 as an extra and stuntman. In the 2000s he was highest paid Asian actor, earning at least $15 million per film.

Chan was among 25 people chosen by Time magazine as “Asia’s greatest living heros.” Richard Corliss of Time wrote that while Bruce Lee “exuded blinding rage” Chan "was all smiles, a joker as well as a fighter” and “a brilliant choreographer of his own unkillable body.” Chan first rose to fame in the United States among the video-store, couch-potato set in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1995, he was presented an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award by Quentin Tarantino.

Kung Fu and Wuxia Films of 2000s and 2010

left“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (directed by Ang Lee, 2000), starring Chow Yun Fat, Zhan Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh, is the biggest grossing foreign film and the biggest grossing foreign film in the United States of all time. Filmed in many different locations across the China, it achieved success as a subtitled Mandarin-language. An example of the wuxia genre of martial arts film, this film generated a lot of interest in the Chinese martial arts and brought a new generation to wuxia-style films. Made at a cost only $15 million, it includes both costume pieces set in pre-modern times and has kung-fu-style fight choreography. The filmmaker Muhe Chen described it as a “wuxia film that addresses revenge, oppressed love, and complicated relationships within the scope of the film’s different characters and their unique traits, many of which relates to Chinese Taoist and Buddhist philosophy”

“Hero” (directed by Zhang Yimou, 2002) features the famed director venturing into wuxia in fairly big blockbuster style. It became a global hit, partially due to Quentin Tarantino’s influence in getting it to American cinemas. Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: Piggybacking on the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero relaunched the Wuxia genre in the PRC. The film not only helped pave the way for the flurry of Wuxia films that would follow – House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Banquet, and The Promise – but would create a new “blockbuster film” model for the Chinese market in terms of the film’s production, casting, promotion, and distribution. [Source: RADII]

“House of Flying Daggers” (directed by Zhang Yimou, 2004) features an all-star cast elaborately fighting in elaborate costumes within elaborate sets under Zhang’s careful guidance. Peter Shiao said: The reasons why I believe House of Flying Daggers survives the test of time is that Zhang Yimou, who is an aesthetician and designer at heart, successfully conveys the tone and intricacies of the Wuxia genre that haven’t really been fully explored with modern film technologies from the bamboo forests and even the flight of the daggers. And here, he visualizes and does a deep dive into one of China’s proudest (and most popular) traditions that heretofore have only been visualized inside reader’s minds. That singular accomplishment merits a place on this esteemed list as the martial hero dream is an inextricable part of the Chinese dream.

“Ip Man” (directed by Wilson Yip, 2008), according to RADII, showcases the chivalric character of the the titular character, a modest grandmaster of Wing Chun (and the future teacher of Bruce Lee), during the Second World War when his town, Foshan, was occupied by Japanese forces. Peter Shiao: I am qualifying a co-production film as Chinese. Ip Man is a classic form that examines the archetype of the Knight errant Xia, a gifted and practiced individual who steps into larger shoes to right crimes against morality and in this case, the Chinese nation by the Japanese during WWII. An updated Chinese connection.

“The Grandmaster” (directed by Wong Kar-wai, 2013) again focuses on the legendary story of Ip Man and was made famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, like Zhang Yimou, is an example of another uber successful director who turned to the Wuxia journey later in his career. screenwriter Phoebe Long said: Contrary to the usually externalized emotional expression of martial arts movies, this film shows the spirit of righteousness and affection in martial arts in a subtle and introverted way. Precise and moving, the movie has an endless aftertaste. [Source: RADII]

“Brotherhood of Blades” (directed by Lu Yang, 2014) is set in the Ming Dynasty and is based around three swordsmen, who are charged with killing manipulative eunuch (and real historical character) Wei Zhongxian. Xueting Christine Ni wrote: The New Wave of Wuxia in Hong Kong favored moody atmospheres, saturated palettes, Wire fu and speedy choreography, blending magic and kung fu. However, New Wave on the mainland was a different kettle of fish. While Hong Kong Wuxia tends to adapt novels, tell stories of Jianghu — happenings between different clans, eccentric swordsmen, contests etc — borrowing from myth and fantasy, Mainland Wuxia tends to focus on historical and legendary figures and takes a more realist approach to choreography.

Image Sources: Ohio State University, Wikipedia. Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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