Oh, Brothers!

7 minute read
Richard Corliss/New York

Imagine that half of all the major Hollywood movies from the 1950s to the 1980s had not been seen in 20 yearsthat The Godfather and Some Like It Hot and Psycho and The Great Escape were kept alive only in the memories of those who had attended the theaters where they first played, that the young charisma of Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn and Jack Nicholson was known only through gossip and old photographs.

Transfer this cinematic blackout to Hong Kong. That’s what happened with the films produced by Shaw Brothers, once the dominant movie studio in East Asia. The pictures produced by Run Run Shaw and his sibling Runme from 1951 to 1985 set the colony’s standard for opulence, vigor and splash in a dozen genres. But because Sir Run Run refused to put his old films on video, or even allow film museums to show them, younger movie fans have had to wonder: What did a martial arts classic like Chang Cheh’s The Heroic Ones or Chor Yuen’s Killer Clans really look like? What did Hong Kong Nocturne and other Shaw musical extravaganzas sound like? What made audiences fall in love with such prime Shaw stars as Linda Lin Dai, David Chiang, Cheng Pei-pei and the dynamite Tina Ti? Could anyone today actually sit through the film version of a Huangmei opera like The Kingdom and the Beauty?

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These tantalizing questions were hard to answer. For decades, Shaw’s action classics have been seen, if at all, in muddy bootlegs that often chopped or squeezed the wide-screen panoramas down to TV shape and dubbed the Mandarin dialogue into an Anglicized cacophony of kung fu grunts and maniacal giggles. Most of the company’s other films have not been seen at all; they have slept in the Shaw vaults, taken for dead. The studio’s reputation decayed too; it was thought to be the stuffy monolith whose primacy was usurped in the ’70s by the upstart Golden Harvest. That was the company smart enough to sign Bruce Lee when Run Run Shaw offered the actor a lowball figure, and to find budding star quality in a runt named Jackie Chan.

Now the familiar Shaw logothe SB embossed on a scallop-shaped shieldis visible again, in ravishing color and wide-screen ShawScope. In an $84 million deal, the studio’s library was purchased by Celestial Pictures, a pan-Asian company run by William Pfeiffer, an American who has lived in Asia for 20 years. Celestial is restoring Shaw films from their original negatives and plans to release several titles, with nifty add-ons like original trailers and interviews with the old stars, to Southeast Asian video outlets every few weeks. The first batch of 10 hits stores this Thursday.

For a Hong Kong movie lover, seeing these movies fresh is like opening the treasure chest of Atlantis. First of all, they look great. The colorsglorious golds, bold redsreveal all the splendor Shaw’s set designers and costumers could contrive, though they worked on budgets a fraction of Hollywood’s. The wide-screen format, even on a TV screen, restores each film to its original epic dimensions. We are reminded that Chang Cheh’s macho melodramas were not just an anthology of fight scenes; they were sumptuous slices of Chinese history, rendered in loving period detail.

More importantly, the films are, by and large, terrifica joyous surprise for those who thought the movies might be dusty artifacts, suitable for their time but not ours. That opera film, for example: The Kingdom and the Beauty from 1959, is the sweet, poignant saga of a young Emperor (Zhao Lei) who falls in love with a commoner (Lin Dai), then leaves her to languish in noble Back Street fashion. As for the opera aspect, the dialogue is mostly spoken; and the tunes include one that sounds spookily like a rap song.

Perhaps the most intelligently romantic of all wartime dramas is Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City (1984), from the Eileen Chang novel about a lonely Shanghai widow (Cora Miao) courted by a dashing Hong Kong playboy (the young, magnetic Chow Yun-fat at his most Cary Grant-ish) in 1939. The Japanese invade Hong Kong, families and fortunes crumble, yet the glow of their hard-won rapture, of love deferred and love embraced, lights up the screen.

The one modern musical, Hong Kong Nocturne from 1967, is a giddy delightno mean feat, considering that each of the film’s three singing, dancing heroines (Cheng Pei-pei, Lily Ho and Chin Ping) loses the man she loves. Under the Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu, the girls soldier on gorgeously, through a dozen songs that portray the territory as a Paris with sweet sauce: “Hong Kong is a lovers’ paradise,” these Chinese chanteuses warble, “Love, like mist, covers blemishes.”

There’s no mist in the 1983 Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, a science-fiction satire that shows the locals, warts and all, as greedy or desperate folks. Lovely Tian-zhen (Cherie Chung) can marry her rich beau if she can prove she’s a virgin. Just before the medical exam, she is abducted by aliens and impregnated. Alex Cheung’s parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars climaxes with a madcap battle between Darth Vader and a sleazy detective in drag. One lightsaber becomes a numchuk; another goes limp at a fatal moment (“Should’ve had my battery charged”). This is a wildly, almost self-destructively inventive comedy.

The world knows Hong Kong for its martial arts movies, and the first Celestial collection has three of the best. Come Drink With Me (1966), The Heroic Ones (1970) and Killer Clans (1976) all bubble with betrayal, with roguish good guys (notably the boyishly take-charge Chiang in The Heroic Ones) whose hands are quicker than their opponents’ eyes, and with plot twists as unexpected as the trap doors that open for all manner of malefactors in Killer Clans. The stunt work is exhilarating, the narrative ingenuity inexhaustible.

Even from this small early sampling, the Celestial package gives evidence of one of the regular cinephile’s prime pleasures: following favorite movie people from one project to another. King Hu was an actor before he became the most artful of action auteurs; here you can see him as Lin Dai’s comic-heroic brother in The Kingdom and the Beauty before watching his breakthrough martial arts film Come Drink With Me. Cheng Pei-pei is majestically severe at 20 as the heroine of Come Drink With Me, then a pert, curvy chanteuse the following year in Hong Kong Nocturne. Li Hanxiang’s directorial style is sedately classical in The Kingdom and the Beauty, rowdy-gaudy-goofy in the farcical The Warlord 13 years later.

Not every one of the first ten chosen is choice. Significant stretches of The Warlord and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star prove that Hong Kong comedy is a taste that can sour over time. The Teahouse (1974), with martial arts whiz Chen Kuan-tai doing little kicking but lots of glowering as a feisty restaurateur, makes a provocative political statementthat the local judiciary coddles young criminalsin a dawdling, slapdash manner.

And that’s the point. No studio, in Hollywood or Hong Kong, produced an unbroken necklace of masterpieces. The variety of the Shaw library will become more evident as we see it whole, in films good and bad. So we look forward to the next batch, due Dec. 19with more films from Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen and Li Hanxiang, more swoony romances and breakneck comedies and kooky musicalsand to all the Shaw films waiting to get a new life for a new generation. Sir Run Run, still alive at 95, must feel like a proud young father again, as he escorts movie connoisseurs on a journey back into Hong Kong’s golden age.

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