Run Run Shaw, Producer of ‘Blade Runner,’ Martial Arts Films, Dies at 106

Media mogula helped innovate the Asian film industry

Sir Run Run Shaw Dead
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HONG KONG – Sir Run Run Shaw, one of the pioneers of the 20th century Chinese film industry, has died.

Shaw, who co-founded the Shaw Brothers film studio with his brother Runme, had been involved in the film industry in Shanghai and Singapore since age 19.

Shaw’s birthday and his exact age have long been clouded in mystery — his widow Mona Shaw (aka Mona Fong) has often refused to clarify the issue — and other sources put his age at 107. He died at 6.55am local time in Hong Kong on Jan 7, 2014.

From his early work doing odd jobs around theaters and cinemas controlled by his older brothers, Shaw went on to establish and run the leading production studios in Asia by the 1950s. Along the way he ushered in significant technical progress into Chinese film.

Shaw is best known for the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts output of the 1960s, but he should rightly also be given credit for pioneering a form of Asian musical film and for putting Hong Kong on the global cinema map.

The Shaw Brothers company was in its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and was influential in both the Asian and Western film industries. He personally has credits on some 360 films, ranging from martial arts classics to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”

Long before Shaw Bros.’ grip on the film industry began to loosen in the 1980s, Run Run had transposed his studio model to TV, launching Television Broadcasts (TVB) which still remains Hong Kong’s leading free-to-air network.

Still others may consider Shaw legendary as a result of his prodigious philanthropic work, particularly funding of the arts, education and science. Shaw’s film empire and canny property investing made him a billionaire. But his donations to mainland Chinese education alone may have exceeded half a billion dollars.

Born in Ningbo, near Shanghai, as Shao Ren Leng,  Shaw began his movie career in the Tian Yi company his older brothers established in 1924. Shanghai was then the center of the booming Chinese film industry, and Run Run’s roles ranged from acting, screenwriting to directing and cinematography. But by 1926, faced with a boycott by six rival studios over various issues, Run Run and brother Runme were dispatched to Singapore in order to negotiate with theater owners there for the screening of their movies to Southeast Asia’s Chinese diaspora audiences.

They were soon significant cinema operators and distributors and in 1932, by the time Japanese military attacks began to disrupt Shanghai life, Tian Yi was able to relocate production to British-controlled Hong Kong, while still operating as one of the largest distributors in the region. He acquired American sound recording equipment and produced what is one of the first Cantonese-language talkies, “The Platinum Dragon.”

While much of the exhibition business was lost as the Japanese forces expanded through Southeast Asia, Run Run bought out his older brother and again set Hong Kong as his company’s primary production base, with Singapore as its secondary location.

The company’s clamshell logo with the initials SB — prominently displayed in Quentin Tarantino’s pair of “Kill Bill” movies — is understood to have been modeled on the Warner Bros. logo. And in the 1950s, Shaw Bros. was famous for having transliterated the Hollywood musical form into bright, upbeat Asian musicals that boasted characteristics of Chinese opera and wholesome leading ladies such as Grace Chang, Betty Loh and Cheng Peipei.

Production was mostly in Mandarin, though Shaw also produced films in Cantonese, other Chinese diaspora dialects and in Malay, for which it employed P Ramlee, still regarded as one of the best-ever Malaysian directors.

Run Run Shaw was known for his extremely hands-on approach to film production and selection, as well as the frenetic rate of production at its Clearwater Bay studios in Hong Kong. He’s said to have watched 700 movies a year until the 1980s. Acting talent was groomed, put under long contracts and required to work simultaneously on multiple pictures, while having their private lives and public image carefully handled by the studio.

Some sources suggest his model was the Hollywood studio system. Others, including Hong Kong Film Festival general manager Roger Garcia, say that it was closer to the Japanese film empires of Shochiku and Toho.

Shaw Bros. produced films in a wide range of genres, and Run Run’s taste was populist rather than innovative. But history has already labeled him as one of the fathers of the kung fu movie.

Wuxia pian, or chivalrous martial arts films, got a huge boost under Shaw Bros. when in 1966 the studio cast its contract actress and dancer Cheng Pei Pei as a swordswoman in the King Hu-directed “Come Drink With Me” and followed that in 1967 with Chang Cheh’s “One Armed Swordsman.”

Shaw was willing to employ directors on a more freelance basis — he notably hired Ko Nakahira and Umetsugu Inoue from Japan — but his micromanagement also damaged relationships with some, such as King Hu and with executives such as Raymond Chow, who in 1970 broke away to form Golden Harvest.

Although Shaw was a renowned talent spotter, he missed the potential of Bruce Lee, whose TV career started in the late 1960s. Instead, Lee’s short-lived but influential film career flourished at Golden Harvest.

The subsequent rivalry between Shaw Bros and Golden Harvest arguably took over from Shaw’s 1950s-early 1960s rivalry with Singapore’s Motion Picture & General Investment (MP&GI). In the 1970s-1990s, the two Hong Kong studios competed to outdo each other and supply much of East Asia with their film content.

Shaw Bros. scaled back its production in the mid-1980s and in 2000 the company’s 760-title library was sold for $84 million to Ananda Krishnan, a Malaysian billionaire with TV and theater interests. Krishnan created Celestial Pictures, a Hong Kong-based company designed to restore and keep alive the Shaw movies in both home entertainment and TV format.

The seeds of decline may have been geopolitical as well as micro-economic.

While Maoist China remained closed, Korea was under military rule and Japan was more inward looking, Hong Kong, a free-wheeling territory made up of immigrants and refugees, was well-suited to be the Hollywood of the East. But by the mid-1990s when the South Korea film industry kicked into gear and 2000 when the Chinese government allowed private capital into its hitherto propaganda-dominated film sector Hong Kong’s dominance was compromised.

However, Run Run Shaw had refocused long before that. In 1967 he launched Cantonese language TV broadcaster TVB, with former actress Mona Fong (later to be Shaw’s second wife) as his lieutenant. To great success they employed many of the same methods in TV that Shaw Bros. had employed in film, including talent management and content creation in which that talent thrived. With mainland China’s CCTV as its nearest rival, TVB is one of the world’s two largest Chinese-language content owners.

And many of the top name stars and directors working in Asia and the Greater China film industries — including Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ann Hui, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Stephen Chow, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung — all got significant boosts from their stints at TVB.

In latter years Run Run left more of the operational management of TVB to Mona, today a mere 82, while he concentrated on giving away large chunks of his fortune. By some estimates there are more than  5,000 schools and universities in China that include a “Yifu” building, wing or library in recognition of his donations. He also endowed a trio of major science prizes for astronomy, maths and medicine.

For his philanthropy and his career he was knighted by the British colonial rulers. And in 1998, post-handover, he was one of the first to be honored by the new government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

“Going on to produce more than 1 000 films, Sir Run Run made a tremendous contribution to the development of the Chinese film industry and extended his influence to Chinese communities all over the world. In the 1960s, he expanded his business into the television industry and co-founded Hong Kong’s first free TV station. Numerous classic TV dramas have been produced for public enjoyment, many of which have become part of the collective memory of Hong Kong people. Although Sir Run Run has passed away, his perseverance and enterprising spirit will live on in the hearts of Hong Kong people, just like those classic films and TV programs that he helped to produce,” said Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Gregory So in a statement.

As recently as last month, Shaw was honored in Hong Kong by the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, whose London headquarters is home to the Run Run Shaw Theatre.