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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A tour of the new Shaw Brothers film studio

In the golden period from the late 1960's to the early 80's, Shaw Brothers studio produced hundreds of Hong Kong movies, all with a stamp of quality very much its own. Shaw Brothers was a film-making machine so well oiled the prodigious output could overcome an indivudual (me). Tempered with this was an approach to the craft and art of film-making that is more accessible to the uninitiated, due to the relatively high production values and well constructed narratives. The recent remastering of hundreds of these classics is like a light in the dark to Kung fu film lovers; now the movies look like they could have been made yesterday, yet retain their old skool edge. An interesting thing about this is that Shaws did not overlook the process themselves. Like in the early 80’s, when Golden Harvest took over and Shaws movies could not keep up with the shifting trends, does this mean Shaws has been left behind in the wave of the new? My visit to the new studio confirmed the answer to this is a definite no.

My friend and I, still jet-lagged and dizzy with the sights and sounds of Hong Kong, set out to the studio. My other friend had told me to get the tube to Po Lam then get a taxi, and to say Shaw Brothers studio. Thing was, in my infinite ignorance I didn’t realise there was a completely new studio. The taxi driver said: “which one? The industrial estate or Clearwater Bay?” Me: “Clearwater Bay.” My ignorance was a blessing in disguise however, as we got to walk in the footsteps of legends and soak up the atmosphere of that magnificent old place. Even if it was just a view of the sign and a glimpse of a studio. So we get to the reception of Shaw House, just around the corner, and give them the name of the Customer relations guy I had been in contact with. The receptionist: “We don’t have anyone of that name working here. I’ll phone the new studio and ask them.” In my head: “D’oh!”. The receptionist talked in Cantonese, then said she would call us a cab. The driver seems to know where we want to go. We roll up at the TVB studio. He points at the security guard, and doesn’t understand our protestations. It’s not my ignorance this time, and feels even better for it; I get to see the TV station where my favourite Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat began his career. We talk to the security guard, he calls us another cab and finally we arrive.

Despite lacking the romantic impression forever emblazoned in my mind of the old studio exterior, the new one looks modern, angular and welcoming. As we were late I was a little worried, but fortunately our guide Customer relations assistant Vincent Ye had been held up as well. We sat down to have a chat, and he bought us a coffee each, which set the tone for our experience of Vincent, one of warmth and affability. His pretty fresh-out-of college intelligence and maturity impressed and won me over. I immediately took out my notebook, and he said there was no need for it, just enjoy the tour. My memory is not great, but man am I glad I didn’t scribble words in random order that I wouldn’t have understood later on. Vincent explained how the studio is producing 4 feature films a year , and has expanded into commercials, Cantonese music and other Asian countries pop music and American film. My first question, being a kung fu movie lover, was “What about Martial arts films?” Unfortunately the answer was “Not at the moment. We are producing dramas.” Luckily I have become a fan of Hong Kong and Chinese dramas more recently. A few years ago I would have been crushed by this news. As some of you may remember the first reopening of the studio was in 2003, with Drunken Monkey. A lot of us had high hopes for this movie, as the legendary Shaws choreographer and director Lau Kar Leung was at the helm, but it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Who knows if this had a hand in the change of direction in film making.

Having the first look around the studio was pretty awe inspiring. It’s like a scene from a David Lynch movie; all red velvet curtains, labyrinthian and surreal ambience. The first room we were shown was the editing suite. On the screen an old movie was playing that Vincent explained to us was the 1996 Mainland movie King of Masks. This surprised me, as before I had left I had heard about the movie as it was being shown in a season at the Filmhouse cinema in my home city Edinburgh, Scotland. This cinema is well worth a visit, as it is dedicated to bringing the best of world cinema to the big screen. I caught Johnnie To’s Mad Detective there a few years back, bliss. Vincent and his colleagues explained they were remastering the movie, and showed us a comparison between the original and the remastered version, which was eye opening. The first thing that struck me was just how advanced and modernised the studio is. Vincent had explained earlier that they were aiming for top tier technology, and despite being a bit of a technophobe, it appeared to me they have achieved this. The pristine, spacious and economical design drew me in, at once comforting and disconcerting. Being thrust into this advanced world, the impact of it did not hit until later. I believed I was going to walk into that studio of old, the sets and costumes of ancient Chinese scenes still intact, the ghosts of such luminaries as Alexander Fu Sheng haunting the corridors.

As we walked around, workmen still unrolling carpets and painting walls, I got the sense of people moving forward. In fact, my whole experience of Hong Kong (It was my first visit) resounded with this. It is a wonderful feeling, one that inspires and is impactful. Yet there is so much zen-like calm amid the storm of dizzying sights and sounds. For instance we enjoyed traditional Chinese music sang and played by local people as we passed every night. My favourite director John Woo’s masterpiece The Killer captures this uncannily, especially in the early scenes of the film, which resound with romance and emotion.

The next two rooms we saw were for music recording. The first was for orchestration, which reminded me of so many documentaries I had seen on television, and I could imagine the orchestra in full swing. The next was for popular music, and we got to hear a Cantopop song the guys were mixing. As is usual in this native music it was a syrupy ballad, not to my taste at all. Vincent : “What do you think?” Me, being diplomatic: “It’s allright.” My friend, who speaks his mind more than I: “Not my kind of thing.” Vincent: “Not my kind of thing either!” So much for diplomacy. It struck me that all of the workers looked very young, and there was a huge sense of camaraderie among them, a feeling that they were the new blood, one that would embrace all the new in every possible way. Talking to Vincent as we walked, I got the same feeling, a pretty obvious one. I would talk about this old kung fu classic or that one, and he would quickly move the subject on to matters of the modern. Even talking about Shaw Brothers involvement in for me one of the greatest movies ever made, Blade Runner, was met with a muted response. However, the next room gladdened my heart with its mix of ancient and modern.

This was the foley room. As Vincent showed us the small cupboards and glasses used for foley, a wave of nostalgia overtook me. I remembered that classic British documentary about the 70’s Shaw Brothers studio, with footage of the foley artists overdubbing simply everything in the movie, working at their craft with diligence and pride. The advent of sync sound hit Hong Kong movies late, but this artform was taken to extremes in the golden age. Although I was born in ‘82, the romance and power of 70’s Martial Arts movies reaches out to me. It was a period where anything could happen; and the gleeful abandon and invention never fails to sweep me away on a deliriously entertaining ride. As a latecomer to Shaws Kung Fu, it is strange for me because I have only seen them in their new pristine form. I grew up on Golden Harvest and Independent classic Kung Fu movies, and got used to ridiculous dubbing and grainy, worn out prints. I feel priveleged to see these movies for the first time without unintentionally humorous moments, although there was something weirdly special about recognising the different expat accented dubbers from film to film.

The last place we visited was one of the soundstages, which was huge and inviting. Vincent explained aswell as shooting in them they held parties there, that I’m sure would be the hottest ticket in town. As we waited for our taxi, which took a little while, we got to know Vincent a little better. He said he liked having “crazy guys” as friends, which we appeared not to be. My repost should have been “Meet me after a bottle of whiskey!” but I wanted to appear too professional. He told us he had written a script that he would be trying to get produced soon, it sounded very interesting. The youthful confidence and easy going attitude he exuded seemed to coalesce with everything we experienced in that glimpse of something very special; and as we drove off the transformation of my mindset was complete. I had expected tradition, in it’s place was shifting modernity and advanced technology, ready to reinvent itself in a world eager to experience it.


1 comment:

Andrew Wong said...

Martin, great article, and great blog! I'm planning on visiting HK and would love to do this TVB tour you went on. Is it open to the public?