The great Run Run Shaw, Hong Kong producer of countless examples of martial arts cinema, who brought Chinese culture and flying Kung Fu masters to the world, passed away, allegedly at the admirable age of 106. Quentin Tarantino is basically his disciple, and Tarantino acknowledges the debt by routinely prefacing his own films with the Shaw Brothers logo.
Shawâ€™s birthday and his exact age have long been clouded in mystery â€” his widow Mona Shaw (aka Mona Fong) has often refused to clarify the issue â€” 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 Brothersâ€™ 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 Scottâ€™s â€œBlade Runner.â€
Not coming to a theater near me, living in the boondocks, but opening recently in urban theaters is the long-awaited biopic about Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who was Bruce Lee’s Sifu, by illustrious Chinese director Wong Kar Wai renowned in the West for “Chungking Express” (1994) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000). Walter Addiego‘s review indicates that the version being released currently theatrically suffers from having been shortened by the great minds of Hollywood to suit the preferences of Western demos, but it will still be a must-see movie for hard-core cineastes and martial arts enthusiasts.
Wong… .focuses on Ip Man’s life roughly from the 1930s to the ’50s, and includes his role in helping sort out the rivalries among Northern and Southern Chinese kung fu schools, the effect on his life of the second Sino-Japanese war, and his later experiences teaching martial arts in Hong Kong.
As you would expect from this filmmaker, a master stylist capable of exquisite images, this isn’t an ordinary martial arts picture. (Ip Man has been the subject of other films, notably two starring Donnie Yen, but they inhabit another universe from Wong’s work.) The fight scenes are balletic, and there’s a lush, sometimes overripe, air about the whole movie. The otherworldly feeling is enhanced by Ip Man’s oracular utterances, thankfully leavened with occasional humor.
The film is at its best when Ip Man (Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu Wai) interacts with a fictional character, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who, as the daughter of an aged martial arts master, cannot inherit his position because of her gender. But she is quite adept at the old man’s style, as evidenced in a remarkably choreographed fight with Ip and battles fought during a later revenge quest. While the first half of the film is Ip’s, Gong Er eventually comes to the fore and even eclipses him.
This is a Wong film, so there will be a major thread of romantic longing and unrequited love.
The martial arts set pieces are skillful enough to thrill even non-connoisseurs. The standouts include the long opening scene of nighttime combat in the rain, with Ip Man wearing his signature white fedora; an extended brawl in a stunningly designed brothel; and a remarkable one-on-one in which Gong Er shows her stuff next to a speeding train.
Wong has long since proved his ability to create a powerful, hallucinatory atmosphere, and he is working here with two charismatic actors – it’s hard to take your eyes off them. But he can’t overcome the film’s choppy feeling, which has nothing to do with its fractured chronology. Story strands feel truncated and characters who seem significant suddenly disappear, as if we’re seeing the choice bits of a longer movie.
In fact, the version that played at this year’s Berlinale was 130 minutes; the film being released by the Weinstein Co., and reviewed here, runs 108.
It turns out that, these days, all is not lost for exurbanites like myself. “The Grandmaster” is available from third party dealers via Amazon on DVD, and at derisory prices no less. I’ve already ordered mine.
Shane Danielson argues that Zhang Yimou’s Chinese martial arts films should be viewed as successors to the Hollywood musicals, featuring the same massive budgets, and similar attractive men and women performing show-stopping ensemble numbers against aesthetically-gilded backgrounds.
He makes the case for his perspective in this essay occasioned by the release of Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia -2006).