| This is quite a period
piece now, but in a way that makes it
even more interesting for its insights!
The curved blade of the vicious looking axe flashes as the scowling monk brings it down in a scythe-like sweep towards his opponent's head. But with a swift side-step the tall Chinese swordsman avoids the blow; whirling round, he slashes his attacker across the stomach, causing him to fall groaning to the ground, his lifeblood gushing out into the dust.
Immediately, five other monks hurl themselves upon the victor, and pandemonium reigns as weapons clash, feet smash into faces and cries of agony fill the air. Soon the tall man, bloodied but unbowed, is surrounded by the gory corpses of his erstwhile would-be killers. Five minutes later, they do the whole thing all over again - another Shaw Brothers costume epic is on its way to completion.
Drive about 18 kilometres out of Kowloon in the British Territory of Hong Kong and there, crouching on a hill overlooking Clearwater Bay, is the Orient's answer to Universal Studios: Shaw Brothers' Movie Town. From a distance it looks as if some time-warp has let a centuries-old Chinese citadel slip through into the present, the distinctive tiled roofs with their graceful curves rising up above massive stone walls, a fine temple gazing out over the sea. But as you come closer, the angular lines of the huge studios and administrative buildings gain prominence, finally hiding all but the tallest of the outside sets. For that, alas, is all those fine historic structures are.
Entering through the main gates (under a prominent "No Visit Allowed" sign) you pass Shaw House and continue up the hill. Hey presto, you're in Ancient China! There ahead of you is a traditional tea pavilion, girdled by a lake, and behind it tower the mighty walls and fortified arched gate of a city. But to the left, all the vast panoply of a major film studio overwhelms your romantic first impression. Huge sound stages - grey buildings, windowless and featureless - stretch away one after another. Administrative offices, make-up departments, props warehouses, even apartment blocks for the actors and staff form a grid-like maze where it's easy to lose your way. Discarded, battered statues and parts of sets are stacked all over the place. The impression is one of a giant building site where nothing is ever quite finished before it is torn down and something else started.
For years after most of the Chinese film industry uprooted itself from Shanghai and transferred en bloc to Hong Kong, Shaw's in effect had the field to themselves. But when their production chief, Raymond Chow, split off to form Golden Harvest - the company that launched Bruce Lee into international orbit and rode into enviable solvency on the crest of his success - things changed. And now both major studios are being challenged by Carl Mak's newly-established Cinema City, at least in local and regional markets.
Russell Cawthorne, international advertising supremo and vice-president at Golden Harvest, claims that Chow's company is more world-orientated than its competitors and the evidence seems to back him up. Since Bruce Lee went international (the first showing of The Big Boss was in Beirut) Golden Harvest has run two production operations, one making a dozen or so local Chinese pictures each year, and the other dealing purely on an international level, producing three or four like Cannonball Run and High Road to China annually with top-rated Hollywood stars such as Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. And course, Jackie Chan is a Golden Harvest protégé.
Shaw's have meanwhile eschewed the Hollywood route, other than by participating financially in a few movies, preferring to concentrate on producing between 40 and 50 films a year for a largely Asian market. But as Chinese gongfu films are also popular in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, the potential is still large.
Cinema City was only formed in 1980, but already has produced Hong Kong's biggest ever box-office success, Aces Go Places, and a hugely popular sequel with the same cast. Concentrating almost totally on the local market, with forays into selected countries in the region, Mak's fledgling company has already secured its base by buying into Hong Kong's third major cinema circuit (the other two are controlled by Shaw and Golden Harvest respectively).
Back at Shaw Studios, there are plenty of people around, scurrying to and fro. The various workshops are hives of activity with sparks from welders flying everywhere, the heavy odour of acetate assailing your nostrils and the incredible noise of man and machine building the "realities" you'll later see on the screen. In the entrance area of one studio, a group of "Shaolin monks" lounge about waiting to be called on set, playing cards and joking amongst themselves. It's amusing watching a Shaolin monk drinking a can of Coke as he plays blackjack.
Inside, well-known director Tong Kai is demonstrating to Ti Lung, one of Shaw's most famous gongfu stars, how he wants a fight with the monks to be staged. With all the hot lights, the temperature in the studio is stifling, in spite of the several fans. Amid much shouting the actors go through the action a few times. It's fast and strenuous, but though his monk opponent is running with sweat, Ti Lung does not appear hot, even though he is dressed in a heavy costume and full wig. At last Tong Kai is satisfied and everyone takes a break.
The standard of acting in Hong Kong seems to be a problem for every studio. "Too many actors here want instant stardom," says Shaw's production manager Lawrence Wong, "and relatively few pay their dues by learning their craft over a long period - although Ti Lung and Lo Lieh did". The constant complaint is of lack of professionalism.
"In Hong Kong there are no actors, just stars," comments Russell Cawthome wryly. Carl Mak, trained in the USA and himself a noted comic actor, has very strong views on the subject.
"Most stars here couldn't make it on an international level," he says. "To make an international standard film here is very, very difficult. I have to triple my efforts to try to convince the actors to live in their parts. They don't, they just go home and play mah jong or whatever. Actors won't work at their art here, they don't have that mentality. Sometimes it breaks my heart, the way they come onto a set with very little, if any, preparation at all. In every role, in every scene, they just play themselves, there's no digging into the part to create a character, no acting as such.
"The problem here is that there's no training like they have in the States. They get everything easy here, too easy. I'll give you an example of what I mean. I was acting in a film, and before the take I was rehearsing by myself, trying out different ways to create my role's character. A female co-star came up and said, 'Hey man, what are you doing, trying to win an Oscar?' That's symbolic of the prevailing mentality, the lack of professionalism of these people. Maybe we could import some Chinese actors from USA, but they're in short supply". . .
Over at Golden Harvest, Russell Cawthorne takes the view that the fact very few films are made in Hong Kong with synchronised sound is an important factor in poor acting motivation. "If you're an actor and you're aware that what you're saying isn't being recorded, and in any event it probably won't be your voice that eventually says the words in the final version anyway, I would have thought it would be very difficult to work up any kind of feeling for the character you're portraying."
"Offhand, I can't think of one film that has used sync sound to any extent. Recorded sound requires that people act and learn their lines, so it might not be too popular! The style internationally is to go for as close to 100 per cent location sound as possible. A western-made picture may have as high as 90 per cent live sound."
But the current poor quality of films produced is not just the fault of the actors. "Writers and directors are also to blame," Cawthorne maintains. "In my experience it's very, very rare that there's any proper script until someone sits down and transcribes what eventually appears on the screen. It surprises me sometimes that films ever have an ending at all! I go along with Darryl F Zanuck, the legendary Hollywood producer, who said 'If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage'."
And Carl Mak agrees: "Money, studios, equipment they're no longer a problem," he says, "just give me a good script!"
Next to the Shaw studio where Tong Kai is filming, another huge building has been converted into a water-filled grotto, with mysterious-looking trees and creepers hanging down from a cliff-face, and stalactites appearing as if they're going to crash into the lake at any second. Director Liu Chia-liang sits on a stepladder sticking up out of the water, and to his left the camera crew squats on a small platform further out into the lake. The water is greenish-brown and murky-looking but the cameraman is wading about in it quite cheerfully, taking light readings and splashing the walls to get highlights.
He throws large lumps of smoking dry ice into the lake and soon the mist is swirling ominously about the set. At any moment you expect the Creature from the Black Lagoon to rise up from the depths and drag somebody screaming back down with him to an awful fate.
But this doesn't happen and the camera starts rolling. TV-turned-film star Adam Chen thrashes through the water, thrusting viciously with his sword at the two brothers on the shore, one of whom is being lowered from the heights at the end of a rope as he does a lateral splits. There's water everywhere and you can't help but wonder what would happen if one of the numerous massive 10K spotlights slipped and fell into the water. Especially if you yourself are standing in it taking photographs.
The studio bosses may complain about actors and scripts, not to mention spiralling production costs, but many people think that the reason better films are not made comes down to one simple factor: money. "Serious" films (with rare exceptions like Ann Hui's Boat People) do not make enough of this valuable commodity. Cinema City has regularly been castigated by critics for producing totally commercially-orientated slapstick comedies with little plot or characterisation. "They're right," responds Carl Mak. "When we first established our company I told everybody, 'We must make money!' Otherwise we wouldn't have lasted. Consequently our films had little depth or drama to them.
"Now, we're changing. I'm encouraging people to make films that are different from our usual style. But because I believe in giving the people who make the film a share in its profits, I'm having a job convincing them to change from comedy, as they think it's a guaranteed box-office success. These days I'm telling them two things: first, don't cheat the audience, give them good value; and second, gain some respect for the company - but don't lose money.
"On the other hand, we musn't forget that Cinema City is a producer of healthy family entertainment. If I've got a message, I want to deliver it to a mass audience, not a few people in a cinema club. People don't talk about Fellini any more, they talk about Spielberg and Lucas. Mass entertainment is the name of the game now. So you can still put your message in your film but in such a way that the mass audience will accept it.
Russell Cawthome is similarly emphatic about the need to appeal to a wide market. "Golden Harvest makes entertainment," he says. "We may be artistic on occasion, but primarily we want to make what audiences want to see, so that they come out of the cinema feeling that the last two hours have been worthwhile."
But he has a caveat. "Just because something is easy to understand and easy to enjoy doesn't mean it has to be of low quality. There's no need to rely on banana-skins and prat-falls like so many of the local producers. It's so immature, sight gags and that's it."
0utside at Shaw Studios the sun is now blazing down and a crowd of a hundred or so people is milling around on the frequently used Village lot, the setting for many a Shaw movie. The set designers are past masters at changing minor details to make it look different in every movie while retaining the basic structure. Crew members in jeans mingle with pigtailed old men in traditional long coats and pretty girls in silk pyjamas with jade pins in their hair.
Realistic open-fronted shops stocking colourful paper lanterns and other traditional goods provide a backdrop to a comic combat scene between a knife-wielding beggar and a terrified mandarin. The whole set is so extensive that it really is like being in a village. Except for the fact that only those parts of the set currently in use are dressed, the remainder being stripped to the bare essentials. It's amusing to try to identify the various teahouses, mansions and alleys you've seen in previous Shaw films.
But Lawrence Wong's thoughts are a long way from days of the Ming Dynasty. According to him, the future of martial arts films lies in a melding of comedy, magic and fables based on Chinese tradition and serious gong fu. "Special effects are going to become more important," he says, "and since making Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (a surprisingly witty, slightly satirical film making use of Star Wars-style special effects, just released in the region) we've learnt a lot about controlling effects budgets. That film was a success with the audiences, but very expensive to produce!"
Shaw's are still splitting their production equally between modem and historical features. The siu lam film 36 Chambers of Shaolin was extremely popular, especially in Japan, and so more siu lam films are on the way. But taking a new direction, the Clearwater Bay Studio had been embarking on joint feature with a Japanese film company, a musical comedy starring Hideki Saijo and Alexander Fu Sheng that was tipped to be a box-office certainty - if not for the sudden death of Fu Sheng in a car crash this July.
Cinema City, after initially deciding not to make another sequel to their Aces series, have been persuaded by an encouraging survey to schedule a third picture ("Rocky? You ain't seen nothing yet!") and have also got a musical planned; Teddy Robin is working on the script at present and will probably star in the film with Hong Kong singer Lam. Carl Mak is also contemplating going to the other extreme by making a "real tearjerker", taking the gamble of casting himself and another well-known comic actor out of character in the serious lead roles.
Down at Golden Harvest they're still promising to release Tom Selleck's High Road to China in Asia sometime this year, and Cannonball II with, to quote Russell Cawthorne, "Burt Reynolds and the usual Beverley Hills telephone directory" - is slated to start filming in the near future. Jackie Chan's latest film, Pirate Patrol, set in Hong Kong in the early years of this century, may be showing in cinemas throughout the Asian region this summer, and another action-packed comedy he has made with Samo Hung, Winners and Sinners, is likely to be released earlier.
"With us it's basically a matter of the same - but more so," says Cawthome.
Back on the lot at Shaw Studios it's getting towards the end of the day. In the make-up department dozens of wigs are being carefully groomed and "filed" in their proper places. Each star has a large collection of hairpieces in numerous styles and colours (some quite extraordinary) and then there are hundreds of others for the extras. Across the roadway, a vast props warehouse contains enough ancient furniture (some of it genuinely old, Shaw's have been going quite a while) to furnish the Forbidden City, together with giant lanterns and Shaolin inscriptions.
On a dusty shelf below a rather battered, fibreglass Buddhist temple bell is graced with a bumper sticker reading "I love you, Bruce Lee". It's a wry reminder of the superstar who Sir Run Run Shaw turned away on several occasions because he wanted too much money. With shooting over for the day, Ti Lung, still dressed in his flowing yellow robes, with his long black hair streaming in the wind, walks slowly back down the lot to his dressing-room. In the background, the green hills of China rise up hazy in the distance. Strangely, it is the modem buildings and Mazdas and Mercedes that seem out of place.
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