Written by Ming-Yeh Rawnsley. The article was initially published on the webpage of the Asia Dialogue
Movie mogul Run Run Shaw (邵逸夫) passed away on 7 January 2014. Many observers have commented on the Shaw Brothers’ empire (邵氏電影公司) and its contribution to Hong Kong cinema. However I would like to add to the discussion a less researched area, that is, from the perspectives of Taiwan’s film industry.
Shaw Brothers was one of the most influential Chinese-language film enterprises between the 1950s and the 1970s. Although, from the 1950s, they had actively expanded their international cooperation with Japan, US and Europe, their major output remained in Mandarin, Cantonese, Amoy-dialect and Malay which appealed primarily to the Chinese audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and beyond (in 1949 the China market began to shrink and was closed to the outside world until the 1980s). Run Run Shaw left Singapore and in 1957 announced his plan to establish a gigantic production house in Hong Kong based on a vision to both globalize and modernize. By the time Shaw Brothers Production House, containing six studios, was completed in 1964, Mandarin-language cinema had become their predominant output (Fu, 2003: 116–118). While Shaw did not fully realize his ambition to break into the Hollywood mainstream, he brought to the Chinese world the practice and systematic integration of film production, distribution and exhibition, which transformed the Hong Kong film industry into the Hollywood of the East.
I shall address the interactions between Shaw Brothers and Taiwan cinema from three inter-related dimensions, namely the political, industrial and cultural.
Politically speaking, the major concern of the Nationalist government (i.e. Kuomintang or KMT, 國民黨) in the late 1940s was its war effort against the Communists. When it was forced to move to Taiwan in 1949, the KMT became preoccupied by two priorities: claiming sovereignty over mainland China on the one hand, and on the other asserting legitimacy and authority on Taiwan. Meanwhile Hong Kong became an ideological battleground between the left-wing and right-wing film studios. The KMT was eager to win influence in the Hong Kong film sector and stipulated that the film companies set up by Chinese nationals in Hong Kong should be regarded as the ROC’s domestic enterprise and thus eligible for funding, protection and to receive the full benefit of the KMT’s film policies. In this way, the KMT was able to exercise an indirect influence over Hong Kong filmmakers and formed a symbiotic relationship with the Hong Kong film industry, especially when the left-wing companies began to lose their mainland market in the early 1950s. Eventually “studios of the apolitical right as represented by Shaw Brothers […] monopolize[d] market positions in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The Hong Kong film industry was moving in the direction of a more conventional and refined glamour industry, producing works that would not risk political censorship in their new markets” (Teo, 1997: 26). In other words, the Nationalist government’s political ideology made the ring-wing sector of the Hong Kong film industry the ultimate beneficiary of its film policies while leaving Taiwan’s commercial filmmakers to their own devices.
Taiwan was one of the earliest places in Asia to be acquainted with cinema, but Taiwanese involvement in film production was limited and came relatively late. When the Japanese left Taiwan in 1945, the film industry on the island became a vacuum for several years, and its most established cinema-related activity was exhibition. According to Lu (1998), by 1949 when the KMT relocated its central administration and government-owned film equipment to Taiwan, there were 146 registered privately-run movie theatres on the island showing around 500 films annually, including well over 300 foreign-language films and 100 plus Chinese movies mostly from Shanghai and Hong Kong (pp.42–43). In the early 1950s, between 600 and 700 films were shown in Taiwan each year, but the ratio between foreign-language films and Chinese films was about 2.2:1. Among the Chinese films, the overwhelming majority was imports from Hong Kong while the number of locally produced films was fewer than ten, usually only between two and four, which shows the poor production rate of Taiwan’s local film industry at the time (p.55).
The commercial success of Xue Pinggui and Wang Baochuan (薛平貴與王寶釧, dir. He Jiming, 1956) triggered a surge of Taiwanese-language cinema between 1955 and 1959 when around 200 dialect films were produced by Taiwanese filmmakers. Nevertheless under the authorities’ neo-colonial policy toward local Taiwanese culture, the KMT government continued to support Mandarin-language cinema as part of its nation-building project and ignored the development of dialect cinema. The first wave of Taiwanese-language films declined dramatically when Taiwan suffered from one of the worst floods in history in August 1959 when the financial loss amounted to the government’s total annual budget. The second wave of dialect cinema reemerged in the early 1960s when the island’s economy took off. Yet its popularity began to wane from the end of the 1960s due to a mixture of complex reasons (Rawnsley, forthcoming). One of the crucial factors was that Mandarin-language cinema finally began generating momentum boosted by the huge popularity of a Shaw Brothers-produced Chinese musical (Yellow Plum Melody opera, 黃梅調), “The Love Eterne” (梁山伯與祝英台, dir. Li Hanxiang, 1963).
As Liu (2003: 131–133) has reported, during the early 1960s most first-release run movie theatres in Taiwan had contracts with Hollywood studios to distribute foreign films. It was difficult for Chinese cinema to be shown in these theatres. However the craze for “The Love Eterne” changed the situation, as some theatres went as against their contracts with Hollywood distributors in order to exhibit the film. In revenge eight Hollywood studios stopped supplying movies to Taiwanese theatres, and thus these theatres took the opportunity to release Mandarin-language cinema instead. Consequently the first-release run theatres for Mandarin films increased from one to three chains between 1963 and 1964. A few years later it jumped to six theatre chains and 80% of movie theatres in Taipei began showing Mandarin-language films by the end of the 1960s.
It is industrially and culturally significant for both Taiwan and Shaw Brothers that the latter helped break the stranglehold of theatre chains for Mandarin cinema in Taiwan. Shaw Brothers became Taiwan’s largest distributor and supplier of Mandarin movies, while also concentrating on producing films in Mandarin, which had an impact on the Cantonese film industry in Hong Kong and the Taiwanese-language film industry in Taiwan. Meanwhile the KMT’s Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMPC, 中央電影公司) began producing more popular Mandarin-language projects under the initiative of Healthy Realism in the 1960s. Subsequently many Taiwanese dialect film workers drifted into the Mandarin-language sector. There was also a flow of Taiwanese-language film talent moving out of Taiwan to Hong Kong in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Most of them were recruited by Shaw Brothers.
It is interesting to note that Shaw Brothers specialized in lavish genre films set in ancient China, such as the Yellow Plum Melody opera, historical costume drama and wuxia (martial arts) films. As it was impossible to conduct location shooting in mainland China at the time, places in Taiwan disguised as imagined cultural China became common screen images for Shaw’s productions. In addition, Taiwan also became Shaw’s closest partner for coproduction, in particular ancient martial arts epics. While the genre films produced by Shaw Brothers dominated Taiwan’s movie markets in the 1960s and the 1970s, Shaw’s imagination of historical and cultural China on screen, echoed by other channels of communications on the island including mass media and school education, became familiar references in the viewers’ daily lives. While the extent to which Shaw’s portrayal of imagined China should be considered Taiwan’s cultural heritage is debatable, Shaw Brothers itself certainly played an important part in Taiwan’s popular culture and film history.
Fu. B.S. 傅葆石 (2003) ‘Moving toward global: A film history of Shaw Brothers’ (走向全球: 邵氏電影史初探), in Liao J.F. et al. 廖金鳳等編著 (eds), The Cinema Empire of Shaw Brothers: The Imagination of Cultural China (邵氏影視帝國: 文化中國的想像). Taipei: Mai-Tian (in Chinese), 115–127.
Liu, X.C. 劉現成 (2003) ‘Shaw Brothers in Taiwan (邵氏電影在台灣)’, in Liao J.F. et al. (eds), The Cinema Empire of Shaw Brothers: The Imagination of Cultural China. Taipei: Mai-Tian (in Chinese),128–150.
Lu, F.I. 盧非易 (1998) Taiwan Cinema: Politics, Economics and Aesthetics, 1949–1994 (台灣電影: 政治, 經濟, 美學, 1949–1994). Taipei: Yuan-Liu (in Chinese).
Rawnsley, M.Y. T. (forthcoming) ‘Taiwanese-language cinema: State versus market, national versus transnational’, Oriental Archive 81.
Teo, S. (1997) Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI.