The Shawteurs: The Three Mad Geniuses of the 80s Shaw Brothers Film Empire / by Samuel B. Prime

                        Waking up from a woeful nightmare to the harsh chill of reality - from Kuei Chih-Hung's HEX (1980)

                        Waking up from a woeful nightmare to the harsh chill of reality - from Kuei Chih-Hung's HEX (1980)

Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studio, officially Shaw Brothers (HK) Ltd., was founded in 1958 with the youngest of the Shaw boys - the recently departed 106-year-old Run Run Shaw - at the presidential helm. The migration came after decades of highly profitable Cantonese film production, exhibition, and distribution business in Singapore, Malaysia, and Shanghai. The change from Cantonese to Mandarin productions in the early 1950s, and in turn the re-centralization of their activities in Hong Kong, occurred more for political reasons than artistic - not for nothing that the People's Republic of China was founded only mere months before the Shaw Brothers announced their new allegiance to (and intent to produce) Mandarin films. The Shaws were businessmen above all else, changing as necessary with the times, and reigning supreme - especially in the martial arts-fueled 1970s - even alongside stiff competition from rival studios (some in cahoots against Shaw) like Cathay, Cinema City, Golden Harvest, and others. Into the 1980s, with continued competition for big screen box office and television’s increased popularity, the Shaws eventually wound down feature production and diverted their resources to Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), of which Run Run Shaw was the largest shareholder and head of its Board of Directors. However, the decision to shift from film to television came neither quickly nor lightly. In the time between 1980 - when Shaw invested in TVB - and 1986 when feature production closed down, the Shaw Brothers Studio tried everything possible to break new cinematic ground, appeal to new, weirder, or marginal demographics, and in so doing, guarantee cash flow by keeping seats filled. What resulted from this wild, desperate, intense capital-driven period of experimentation is the most torrentially insane, go for broke cross section of genre cinema the likes of which had never been seen before or since. At the white-hot center of production, three mad geniuses let loose in the system: Kuei Chih-Hung, Yang Chuan, and Ho Meng Hua.

None of the aforementioned directors are particularly well known in the United States, except among movie buffs or those who are lucky enough to call their obsession a career. In some small way, I hope this primer on three intensely interesting craftsmen, each with their own disparate filmmaking style, functions as a window into discovering their works. Not only are they each individually underrated and criminally overlooked in the context of the Shaw Brothers catalogue; they are collectively dismissed within the history of cinema (or unfairly relegated to the status of detritus despite their technical virtuosity). 

                                  Kuei Chih-Hung

                                  Kuei Chih-Hung

Kuei Chih-Hung is best known as the director of The Boxer's Omen (1983), a very difficult-to-describe wizard battle flick that has made the repertory rounds since 2012, due in no small part to 1) the discovery of a subterranean treasure trove of discarded Shaw Brothers 35mm prints by programmer Dan Halsted and 2) its employ of cheap, weird, and tactile practical effects that today have been supplanted by computer-generated imagery. Kuei's signatures are neon-lit, papier-mâché worlds filled with imaginative supernatural creatures, painstakingly-realized, rainbow-colored lens flares, and conventional narratives (revenge, in the case of The Boxer's Omen) realized with an otherworldly emphasis on black magic, Buddhism, and, um, good ol' bile. Kuei's films are less about story, more about set pieces. This is most true in The Boxer's Omen, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The film in question runs standard feature-length, but doesn't let up with its next-level, how-far-can-we-go, barf-if-you-dare insanity. Every successive scene is about topping the one that came before it, grossing out the suits at Shaw as much as entertaining whomever may have wandered into the theater. 

Kuei was a rebel in his own right, both against the studio and against popular taste, making sincere horror films at a time in Hong Kong cinema history where audiences were more attuned to self-referential slapstick. Only five years later (the introduction of Hong Kong's motion picture rating system), Kuei's films would have been banned outright or slapped with a damning Category III rating - not suitable for anyone under the age of 18. His other films during this period include: Hex (1980), Hex vs. Witchcraft (1980), Corpse Mania (1981), and Hex After Hex (1982), among others. Despite more than two decades working with and for the Shaws, Kuei left the studio and filmmaking altogether after his last feature, Misfire (1984), and emigrated to the United States where he opened up his own pizza joint (I'm still trying to figure out what it was called) and later died of liver cancer in 1999, aged 61. He is survived by his son, Ming Beaver Kwei, and was recently honored posthumously with a career-spanning retrospective by the Hong Kong Film Archive (although the series never made it stateside). 

     A still from one of the least disturbing sequences in Yang Chuan's SEEDING OF A GHOST (1983)

     A still from one of the least disturbing sequences in Yang Chuan's SEEDING OF A GHOST (1983)

Even lesser-known is Yang Chuan, whose films are my personal favorites and boast unbelievable one-sentence synopses, such as in the case of Seeding of a Ghost (1983): "A Hong Kong taxi driver suffers after being cursed by a sorcerer he accidentally hit with his cab." His films gradually build to chaotic, bloodsoaked denouements. In comparison to Kuei, Yang's cinema adds nuance in the form of sophisticated, dynamic lighting arrangements; narratives that have an obvious moral center or social import beyond their supernatural surface; and a camera that is unafraid of pans, tracks, and occasionally builds its scenes around complex choreography. Whereas Kuei is a provocateur whose impact arrives with the sum of his films' rather purposefully revolting parts, Yang is the raconteur who builds to a dramatic peak only in the final moments of his films. Yang's films may be less political than Kuei's, but are dedicated to their potential viewers in a way that seems entirely unconcerned with or independent of the Shaw Brothers studio mechanism. Yang practically gets away with murder - or something like it. 

Seeding of a Ghost is the most readily available of Yang's films, but those that are harder to track down (especially in English-subtitled versions) are equally enthralling, if not more so. Hell Has No Boundary (1982) is the story of a policewoman vying for a promotion in a competitive and cutthroat office environment - one for which she is by her own admission an unlikely candidate. However, the tables turn when on a peaceful camping trip she gets possessed by a grotesque alien creature. Her tactics change altogether when she begins to develop telekinetic powers - from here forward, eliminating the competition means literal extinction for her colleagues. Twisted Passion (1985) follows suit in that its softcore story of taboo sex (and sexuality) is startlingly frank and unapologetic. Top-model Tina marries a man who promises her health, wealth, anything that she wants, with a single exception: he refuses to have sex with her. As with Seeding of a Ghost and Hell Has No Boundary, its final reel is reserved for an exquisite peak of violence, but its journey is one of forbidden erotic self-discovery.

Starved for satisfaction, Tina explores the pleasures of the body with many partners (including, as seen above, a young gigolo whose bedroom wall bears an iconic Rocky III poster). She lies with both men and women, parties hard to distract herself from her husband's bedroom aloofness, but cannot cope when she learns of his secret homosexuality (her immediate response is to shout: "You're not human!") and outs him to the public. Tina's tears roll alongside the credits. Although Yang has not yet received the same recent museological validation and celebration as Kuei, his subtextually rich cinema is ripe for rediscovery. 

                                                                                   Ho Meng Hua

                                                                                   Ho Meng Hua

Lastly, Ho Meng Hua: the jack-of-all-trades who worked for the studio from 1958 until 1980 and who paved the way for Kuei and Yang to explore horror and erotica under the Shaw aegis without much fear of restraint. It is true that Ho never made movies for Shaw in the 80s, but - precisely because they proved commercially viable - the films he directed for the studio in the late 70s, including Black Magic (1975), Black Magic II (1976), and Oily Maniac (1976), ushered in Shaw to its era of hopeless, beautiful experimentation. This is the man to thank. Perhaps it is no accident that black magic and diabolical sorcery run through each filmmaker's diverse filmography as a common theme.

Nonetheless, Ho was versatile - he took on more or less any project, genre, or subject that the studio tossed his way. Ho was the pioneer, the man who went there first, although possibly to his detriment. He thought of himself bitterly, and is still thought of today, as a commercial director rather than an auteur, but I think his wide appeal is his strength. He did not overspecialize, he worked on-time, on-budget, respected the stressful bottom-line attitude for which the Shaws were infamous, but - most of all - he did his job well. The proof is in the lasting and penetrative effect of his sensitive, yet silly films. His films aren't psychedelic head trips as with Kuei or artistic narratives rich with subtext similar to Yang, but instead reflect someone having fun and not taking the work - or themselves - too seriously. To his credit, and with no small assist from Quentin Tarantino, Ho's King Kong rip-off entitled The Mighty Peking Man (1977) saw a stateside theatrical release by way of the short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution label and is the only film among the nearly 200 feature films between these three "Shawteurs" to be reviewed (favorably!) by the late Roger Ebert. Ebert rated it three out of four stars, citing its "general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius." Ebert's praise is its own unquestionable vindication.

peking

KueiYang, and Ho were by no means the only directors employed by Shaw and creating outstanding work in the 80s (Hua Shan's Bloody Parrot from 1981 is definitely worth a look), but these three mad geniuses were doing it consistently and with abandon: although their lives did not necessarily depend on it, their livelihoods did. Each approached the era differently, from their own perspective, but each produced bold, daring, artful, imaginative, and fun work that only could have been created in that specific time and place at the behest of a studio clamoring to keep its foothold in an ever-changing marketplace. In the 1980s, Shaw Brothers was trying new things, conveniently forgetting any and all past genre scruples, and - within budgetary, calendar, and delivery constraints - allowing its directors a kind of uncommon authorship and creative control. You just had to be mad or genius enough to embrace the opportunity.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon