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Show Business: The Men Behind Kung Fooey

4 minute read

“The Chinese take Kung Fu seriously,” observes Run Run Shaw, one of two Chinese brothers who produced the current smash-hit film Five Fingers of Death. “Americans see it as comedy.” Not that Run Run minds, as long as customers pay. “We’re here to make money,” he happily admits. Comic as it may seem, Five Fingers, made in Hong Kong for a mere $300,000, has grossed $3,800,000 in only eleven weeks in the U.S., not to mention $4,100,000 in other foreign countries.

Five Fingers is a kind of chop-suey western exploiting Kung Fu, one of the Chinese martial arts of man-to-man combat. Instead of six-shooters, the actors use their hands, feet and heads to show who is the fastest draw in the East. Besides kicking, jumping and batting their heads together, they like to yell and grunt a lot.

The plot of Five Fingers, such as it is, involves the rivalry between two schools of Kung Fu: the good guys are handsome, the bad guys ugly. Dubbed in a kind of pidgin hip—”Hey, whadda you guys doin’ here?” the hero asks at one point—the film makes no attempt to synchronize speech to lip movements, and a character can go on talking long after his mouth has closed. Not that it matters, considering the low level of the dialogue. Still, the picture is harmless fun, and the violence seems no more real—or scary—than the POWs and WHAMs in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

The Shaw brothers, Run Run and Runme, have managed to dominate the film industry of much of Asia. From 46 acres of outdoor sets, sound stages and pagodas overlooking Hong Kong’s Clear Water Bay, Run Run, 67, the creative half of the team, churns out about 40 films a year at an average cost of $ 180,000, many of them Kung Fu kickers like Five Fingers. Runme, 73, then shows them in their 141 theaters.

Run Run puts in a twelve-hour day seven days a week. “We stop for three days for the Chinese New Year,” he says. “But if we’re in a hurry, we celebrate New Year one week later.” The brothers provide free housing for actors, directors and technicians in the 400-room dormitory on the studio grounds, because Run Run likes having his key people at hand. “If we get an idea at 2 a.m., we call everybody and say ‘Come on over and have some coffee.’ ” Run Run lives just above his movietown in an enormous red villa that is a replica of mansions from the day:; of the Boxer Rebellion. He also has a second villa, two apartments, a Rolls-Royce, Cadillac and Continental, and an eye for starlets. Runme lives in Singapore and is more circumspect, but has a penchant for horse racing. Together, the brothers Shaw have accumulated so much wealth that they have lost track of it. “We have hundreds of millions,” shrugs Run Run. “Hong Kong or U.S. dollars—it doesn’t matter.”

Though the Shaw brothers have been making films since the mid-’20s, the only Western distribution their Kung Fu movies used to have was in the Chinatowns of Europe and America. Last January, however. Run Run decided to peddle his Kung Fu movies to a wider audience. “American people always love action,” he says to explain his Great Leap Forward. “Hollywood made lots of money with cowboys until Italians made cowboy pictures with more action. Next came James Bond.” He adds proudly: “Now from Hong Kong comes Kung Fu.”

Other Asian producers are already invading the U.S. market, and last week the Shaws’ own top director, Chang Cheh, left the fold to give Run Run and Runme a run for their money. “It’s like Chinese food,” says Run Run. “When Americans taste it, they like it.” Indeed they do. In one recent week, the three top-grossing films in the U.S. were a trio of brothers-in-Kung Fu: Five Fingers, Fists of Fury and Deep Thrust: The Hand of Death.

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