Hong Kong media mogul Run Run Shaw passed away Tuesday. He was 106 or 107 years old and led an incredibly full life. For most Americans, whether they know it or not, Shaw will be largely remembered for his movie company Shaw Brothers Studio.
During its run Shaw Brothers Studio put out around 1,000 movies across many genres. But the studio will forever be linked to the hundreds of iconic kung fu films it championed and distributed to mass markets across the world.
In 2009, Halsted (a kung fu film collector) had a theory. After learning the Shaw brothers owned their own theater chain, he believed once movie prints got shipped from Hong Kong they never got shipped back. “Every [35-millimeter movie] weighs roughly 50 pounds, so shipping hundreds of movies oversees, before a home video market … what was the point?” says Halsted.
Halsted took to Google with his theory, and got in contact with some of Run Run Shaw’s closest associates. After a few months of back and forth, they sent Halsted a key to a closed, dilapidated Shaw Theater in Vancouver, B.C. on notorious Hastings Street. Below the main stage, Halsted found around 200 original Shaw Brothers films on around 1,000 35-millimeter film reels (The Portland Mercury wrote an article about Halsted’s hunt).
Halsted contends this is the largest collection of kung fu film in the Western Hemisphere. “It very well could be,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Halsted’s theory was correct. Most of the films that were shipped out of Hong Kong didn’t make it back. And what didn’t make it back has usually been lost or exists in substandard condition.
“It’s very likely that not all, but a significant amount of these films are unique prints, or the best-surviving material,” says Horak.
It turns out that being left under the stage of the Shaw Theater was one of the best things that could have happened to the film. “The enemy of film is humidity. The fact that Vancouver has low humidity and it doesn’t get really hot there, it was great storage conditions. And the film wasn’t in film cans, which is bad for film,” says Halsted.
Halsted ended up donating the film collection to the America Genre Film Archive in Austin, Texas. Now he and everyone else (theaters, art institutes, film festivals) can access the films whenever they want.
Since 2004, Halsted has been sharing kung fu movies with Portland audiences. His now monthly “Kung Fu Theater” has introduced hundreds of Oregonians to the wacky, unique genre that cemented the legacy of Run Run Shaw.
In honor of Shaw, Halsted shares his five essential picks from the Shaw Brothers Studio.
Shaw Brothers Studio In Five Movies
1) The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, 1978
The first pick is a must for any potential kung fu fan. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is widely considered one of the best of its genre. American audiences may recognize it as the inspiration behind the Wu Tang Clan’s first album, Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers).
Halsted explains it like this: “It’s the movie for anyone who doesn’t take kung fu movies seriously.”
The story follows Liu Yu-de, a young rebel on the run, after a brutal government crackdown claims the lives of his friends and family. He sneaks inside the storied Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu. There he trains in the temple’s 35 chambers with the hope of avenging his loved ones.
Halsted finds the film stands apart due to its rich cinematography, high production and strong story. “It’s like what Seven Samurai is for Samurai films,” says Halsted. “Regardless of your taste in cinema, you will love this movie.”
2) Vengeance!, 1970
The director of Vengeance!, Chang Cheh, was the most prolific director for Shaw Brothers’ studios. In his time he directed almost 100 films, with common themes of violence, brotherhood and homoeroticism.
“The theory has always been that Chang Cheh was gay,” says Halsted. And in this context, the film Vengeance! takes on a deeper meaning.
“It’s a story about a man getting revenge for the death of his friend. But their relationship is never fully explained. And as it goes on, you can tell it’s really a love story about him getting revenge for the death of his lover.”
In some overdubbed or subtitled versions, “friend” is replaced with “brother.” But Halsted clarifies that in Chang Cheh’s movies, “‘brother’ means close friend, not siblings.”
Halsted believes Vengeance! stands apart from Cheh’s other films that also include homosexual innuendos. “It seems like Chang Cheh was like, ‘This is my really serious film about this subject.’ In the rest of his movies, the homoeroticism is always there, you get used to it … But in that movie it just seems really serious.”
3) The Boxer’s Omen, 1983
Halsted wanted to pick a film to showcase the Shaw Brothers Studio’s “voodoo horror” sub-genre. He believes The Boxer’s Omen is the cream of the crop. It’s gross and has lasers. It’s an over-the-top film, but that’s more or less to be expected.
“One thing that would happen all the time in the Shaw Brothers voodoo horror films was that there would be these wizard battles. There would be these two master wizards who would face off against each other and pull out their bag of tricks … and you’d have levitating heads, lasers and bats. It’s insane,” says Halsted.
4) Mighty Peking Man, 1977
The Shaw Brothers also made monster movies. Mighty Peking Man doesn’t disappoint. The film is part King Kong friend-zoned by a scantly clad woman in the Himalayan jungle and part Godzilla-like creature destroying Hong Kong. But Halsted attests it’s a unique “great, great, great” film. He’s not the only one either.
In 1999, Quentin Tarantino re-released Mighty Peking Man through his distribution company Rolling Thunder Pictures. The film didn’t do too well in theaters. But the late Roger Ebert ended up giving the film three stars “for general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius.”
Bastard Swordsman was made in the final years of Shaw Brothers studio before it suspended production in 1985. Run Run Shaw had sharpened his focus on television. Shaw’s company would grow to eventually control 80 percent of the Hong Kong market.
But even in its final years, Halsted states the martial arts in Bastard Swordsman is hard to beat. What distinguishes Bastard Swordsman for Halsted is the special effects. In the climax of the film two kung fu masters face off in a giant, flying cocoon. “These are practical effects, so they built this giant cocoon that had it on wires flying around the set; it’s really amazing,” says Halsted.
The Hollywood Theatre will be putting on a “Run Run Shaw Tribute Movie Marathon,” Saturday, February 1, at 7:30 p.m. For full event details visit their website.