PRINT September 2004


AT THE DAWN OF THE 1960S, on the shore of Hong Kong’s Clearwater Bay, a world capital of sorts came into being: Movietown, the production center of the seemingly unbeatable Shaw Brothers Ltd., a company that had parlayed a movie-theater business in prerevolutionary Shanghai into a global concern dominating both production and exhibition in Chinese-language markets. Looking in aerial photographs like a cross between a low-income housing project and a theme park crammed with ancient Chinese motifs, Movietown was in its heyday a self-contained filmmaking universe open around the clock and churning out as many as seven features at a time—some three hundred were made in the studio’s first twelve years—to fill the screens of Hong Kong and Taiwan and Southeast Asia, and beyond that all the screens of the diaspora of London and New York and San Francisco and every other city with a Chinatown.

Movietown’s standing sets, employed in movie after movie, would become a familiar alternate world: a phantom China whose temples and palaces, taverns and brothels, labyrinthine fortresses, picturesque rock formations, and subterranean canals provided the setting for an endless succession of combats, conspiracies, rigorous apprenticeships, bloody sacrifices, and displays of extravagant skill both martial and supernatural. Even though geographically and temporally inaccessible, this lost China—destroyed by history and thereby permitted to flourish as myth—asserted its undying presence through vibrant color schemes and rousingly noisy music and sound effects. The movie offered not just a story but an extension of place to alleviate the claustrophobia of exile. The screen was like a window or a harbor front opening into a past that signaled its defiant robustness with overpowering displays of physical energy, leaps above treetops, high-speed attacks and evasions, fight scenes in which (as in the finale of 1972’s Boxer from Shantung) a wounded warrior could keep knocking down dozens of opponents for ten minutes with a hatchet embedded in his stomach.

The wuxia pian (“films of chivalric combat”) that in the late ’60s and early ’70s dominated Shaw Brothers’ releases embodied the oldest of traditions, extending from classic novels like the seventeenth-century Water Margin (to which Shaw Brothers paid tribute with a 1972 film version followed by the 1973 sequel, All Men Are Brothers) and the melodrama and acrobatics of Chinese opera to the swordplay and displays of magic that became a staple of Chinese movies from the silent era on. From those early sources the movies preserved not only a repertoire of devices and situations but, beneath all the heroic fantasy, an ancient harshness grounded in political realism. In the absence of reliable, uncorrupted law enforcement or any notion of popular sovereignty, heroic action was an improvisational kind of justice, created ad hoc in the midst of emerging confrontations and shored up by whatever loyalties were available to be called upon.

But Shaw Brothers movies were also harbingers of the modern. Their dazzlingly bright colors and expansive Shawscope compositions revamped the inherited inventory of adventure stories into artifacts that seemed futuristic: the products of a China yet to be, streamlined and globally competitive, not a version of Hollywood, but an alternative to Hollywood. Soon enough, with the advent of Bruce Lee and the triumph of kung fu, Hong Kong filmmakers would look beyond Chinese-language audiences, leading the way to the gaudy era when Tsui Hark, John Woo, and their colleagues briefly made Hong Kong movies into a world model for genre filmmaking—faster, wilder, and more flamboyantly stylized than the American competition.

By then, the splendor of the earlier films was just a memory. In Chinatowns all over the world, movie theaters were shutting down one by one, Movietown had begun its long decline, and the widescreen epics of great directors like King Hu, Zhang Che, and Chu Yuan survived, if at all, as truncated, faded, panned-and-scanned, horribly dubbed videos, interspersed indistinguishably with far cruder and cheaper martial-arts fodder and valued chiefly as a source of motifs and samples for hip-hop records. The movies of a lost world were themselves consigned to a lost world; there were even rumors of negatives faded beyond restoration.

But now, in an unanticipated bonanza, we have been witnessing through the good offices of Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong a flood of digitally restored items from the Shaw Brothers catalogue, with the promise of many more to come: The library amounts to some eight hundred movies. These reissues as they proceed over the coming years promise to expand drastically our sense of the generic and stylistic range of Hong Kong filmmaking. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which premiered a good number of the new prints last summer, will include a Shaw Brothers retrospective in the New York Film Festival next month. The festival will focus especially on the newly revealed splendors of the late ’50s and early ’60s, a period dominated by sumptuously artificial opera films like Li Han-hsiang’s The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) and Beyond the Great Wall (1964) and heart-wrenching romantic dramas like Chin Tao’s Endless Love (1961). (All three of those films are marked by the indelible presence of Lin Dai, an actress whose tragic roles were echoed by her own suicide at thirty.) The process of excavation is only beginning.

WITH MANY OTHERS, I FEEL AN ALMOST IRRATIONAL GRATITUDE for the return of those Shaw Brothers films of the ’70s that had become an increasingly remote memory. It’s like being allowed to return to a place where you were once happy and which you had thought you’d never see again. Just a glimpse of the immense blue skies that often fill that ultrawide Shawscope frame—a shade of blue that seems to exist only in Hong Kong movies of a certain vintage—promises, if not earthly happiness, then whatever it is that movies offer as a nearly indistinguishable substitute.

No DVD can restore the atmosphere of a Chinatown movie theater in the ’60s and ’70s, that sense that the theater was a kind of town square where all generations were represented, some intently focused on whatever violent costume melodrama or kinky sex farce was unreeling on-screen, others perhaps more preoccupied with eating lunch, looking after babies, or keeping an eye on the older kids roaming in the aisles. No single movie was more important than the continuity provided by a steady stream of product, with its implication that there would always be one more cunningly devised stratagem, one more annihilating collision of a lone swordsman with an army of masked attackers, one more heartbreaking ballad to embody the force of a frustrated passion otherwise left chastely to the imagination (at least before the floodgates of eroticism opened with the 1972 hit Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan).

The classic Shaw Brothers movies set about their business from the first frames and allow for very little downtime as they progress. In the manner of the storytelling tradition in which they are rooted, attention is sustained rigorously from instant to instant, with overall structure less important than making sure that something compelling is happening at any given moment. Typically a movie starts with a scene of vigorous combat that will be explained more or less on the run, the characters dropping in bits of backstory in between spear thrusts or feats of levitation. A good deal of the backstory may never be explained to the satisfaction of a viewer unfamiliar with the legacy of well-known plotlines on which the films draw freely, and in the last reel the movie may seem not so much to end as to stop, suspended at a convenient moment to be resumed at some future time.

The point is not what’s going to happen; such resolutions as occur are more or less inevitable. What counts is to maintain an unbroken intensity of spectacle, in which every movement and image—every glance and gesture, every boastful challenge and malevolent chuckle—is calculated for unimpeded impact. The energy of these movies evokes to a remarkable degree that of the oldest storytelling or street theater, a quality owing much to the speed with which they were made by a stock company of actors and technicians kept on their mettle by near-constant employment. (Production conditions were far from utopian, and the restrictive contracts and drastically low salaries offered by Shaw Brothers would finally lead to the defection of some of its best talent.) When Yueh Hua, as an avenging warrior disguised as a scruffy mendicant entertainer, launches into his comical patter-song in a tavern packed with bandits in King Hu’s magnificent Come Drink with Me (1966), the street-theater aspect comes into full play. Juggling, acrobatics, rhymed riddles and stylized insults, magic tricks and tests of strength: Nothing that will keep the audience attentive for one moment longer is out of place.

These were movies in which skill was central, a skill not merely alluded to but constantly demonstrated, and to see them was to encounter not simply a foreign language but a foreign body language, shaped by skills that were made explicit at every moment, with no latent capability left to surmise. Those Shaw Brothers stars who were not themselves martial-arts adepts made up for it with a choreographic grace—augmented by wires, trampolines, and intricately deceptive editing—that made Hollywood action scenes of the time seem curtailed and mechanical. “I’m impressed with your whip technique,” an admiring warrior tells the beautiful Cheng Pei-pei in The Shadow Whip (1970), in what amounts to a refinement of lovemaking. No combat is too closely fought not to allow time for those interjected bits of analysis—“Someone having such guts must be skilled” or “If you were kidding you wouldn’t punch so hard”—that establish a backbeat for the blows and parries. Whatever takes place on-screen is informed and enlarged by language; every duel is partly verbal. The wily magistrates, unctuous monks, and rapacious bandits are all masters of both hypocritical courtesies and baroque vituperation, and there is always an ample supply of comically fearful, vainglorious, or simply dim-witted henchmen for additional theatrical flavor.

To see the Shaw Brothers stock company demonstrate how an acting technique of nearly total artificiality—a technique based on rigidly defined character types and a repertoire of fixed gestures—can create as convincing an illusion as supposedly more naturalistic styles would alone make these movies endlessly watchable. These are ensemble works in which no player, however minor, ever relents for a second: All villains are transparently villainous, all heroes self-evidently sincere. Lechery, cowardice, senile weakness, low cunning, and wounded pride are all displayed in the manner of puppet theater, with decisive figuration and vigorous grace seemingly more valued than nuance or ambiguity. Only seemingly, because nuance and ambiguity creep in anyway, as the avenging loyalists incarnated by Jimmy Wang Yu (The One-Armed Swordsman [1966]) and Ti Lung (The Blood Brothers [1973]) become increasingly nihilistic and conflicted, and even David Chiang, the impishly smiling, sometimes lute-strumming hero of so many films, acquires intimations of a psychopathic edge.

The earlier releases have a particular charm; they are stylized in ways that would be phased out as Hong Kong movies reached wider markets, and their combat scenes are leavened by romance, domestic comedy, and musical diversion. These are wonder tales, in which a mysterious stranger can walk without leaving footprints in the snow (The Shadow Whip) or in which a slain warrior may rise out of his body, ascending heavenward in astral form (The Trail of the Broken Blade [1967]). The Temple of the Red Lotus (1965), a huge hit that sealed the popularity of wuxia pian, culminates in a long sequence in which the hero—owing to the arcane rules of the clan he has married into—must confront in combat his wife’s sister, mother, and grandmother.

The Knight of Knights (1966), a particularly rich mix, pits a masked hero against a conclave of corrupt and lecherous monks (the sustained leering grin of the foremost lecher is something to see) who keep abducted women prisoner in their monastery while plotting to assassinate a magistrate by toppling his pagoda into the sea. (The toppling is initially demonstrated with the use of a builder’s model, a striking instance of these movies’ concern with architectural technique, whether in the form of traps, hiding places, or ingenious means of invasion and infiltration.) It also finds room for a poignant, musically narrated interlude in which the chaste hero and heroine must dry their clothes off by the fire, separated only by a screen—a demonstration that virtue is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Women had a much greater role to play in the early swordplay era, with woman warriors like Cheng Pei-pei, Xu Feng, and Angela Mao taking charge in a fashion that remains exhilarating. Later films, by contrast, particularly under the guidance of the extraordinarily prolific Zhang Che (he directed some hundred movies), would concern themselves ever more relentlessly with the fate of the male body, as blood-soaked heroes took longer and longer to die, gathering their energy for one more leap to take out one more assailant. The lighter elements that had been part of the genre tended increasingly to give way to a more doom-laden atmosphere: The question was no longer whether the hero would survive but whether he would succeed in killing all his opponents before finally collapsing. The blood leaking from the corner of his mouth was the inevitable signal that his time was up.

Pure fantasy found a home, however, in a cycle of films adapted by Chu Yuan from a series of twentieth-century novels by Gu Long, including The Magic Blade (1976), Killer Clans (1976), and Clans of Intrigue (1977). Here we are plunged into a dreamlike universe inhabited solely by martial-arts masters who operate through arts of magic, disguise, and secret weaponry like the mystical Peacock dart. The director had already made the notorious Intimate Confessions, a film that manages to blend brutal realism, an erotic explicitness that broke decisively with convention, and rough-hewn comedy (on the favorite Chinese theme of senile lechery) before culminating in a scene of mutual annihilation as the courtesan and her madam more or less slice each other to pieces. In his Gu Long adaptations, Chu Yuan revealed himself as a master of luxurious reverie; the films are like exquisitely aestheticized fever dreams that seem to dissolve as you watch them, leaving only brightly colored fragments behind.

It is fitting that these should reemerge at a moment when their ghostly presence has been making itself felt in contexts ranging from Tsai Ming-liang’s minimalist Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), with its nearly empty movie theater showing the King Hu classic Dragon Inn to spectators seemingly lost in time, to Quentin Tarantino’s appropriation of the Shaw Brothers logo for the opening of Kill Bill. With all respect to Tarantino, there is indeed nothing like the real thing, and even those who don’t find it necessary to track down all eight hundred Shaw Brothers releases may find that these apparently escapist fantasies evoke, finally, something uncannily solid: indeed, nothing less than a world.

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America.