When you’re a billionaire showbiz mogul who lives to be 106, when you do finally go out, you go out with many legends attached to your name. Such is the case with Sir Run Run Shaw, who died this week in Hong Kong. One of the greatest stories attached to the man originates almost a century ago, when he and his brother presented their very first play in Shanghai. A cheap affair called Man from Shensi, and mounted on a rickety stage, the comedy got its biggest laugh when the rotting planks under the actors collapsed and took the performers with it.
The public had spoken. The Shaw brothers arranged for the planks to collapse every night.
Over the course of a life that itself would make a sensational movie – and it doubtlessly will – Run Run Shaw produced close to 1,000 films, dodged political upheaval and foreign invasion, hid a wartime fortune from the Japanese, participated in the transition from silent to sound film in Asia, broke the ground for the global Hong Kong film industry, founded one of the world’s most influential TV services, gave the kung-fu genre its international kick start, donated millions of dollars to charities ranging from hospitals to Girl Scouts, bailed the ailing Macy’s department store interest out and remarried in a notoriously immodest Las Vegas ceremony at the age of 90.
He attributed his success, well-being and longevity to an unwavering regimen of ginseng, daily naps and regular tai-chi practice. A purveyor of entertainment that tended toward the crowd-pleasing, low-brow, action-oriented and just plain fun, Shaw was once asked what kind of movies he himself liked. “I particularly like movies that make money,” he said.
While it may exaggerate matters to suggest there wouldn’t be an Asian film industry without him, it’s a matter of fact that it would be a very different one. It was Shaw who built an empire based on the provision of culturally specific entertainment for a thrill- and sentiment-seeking working-class audience, who appropriated the basic elements of the Hollywood studio system and customized them into a formidable star- and movie-making machine of its own, who hurdled the turbulence of war and politics with pure entertainment, and who effectively brought martial-arts spectacle to the world.
That he failed to see the potential in a young, American-born martial-arts instructor named Bruce Lee may rank among Shaw’s very few lapses of commercial vision (Lee was subsequently signed to Golden Harvest, Shaw’s leading Hong Kong competitor), but it remains that Lee’s stardom wouldn’t have happened if Shaw hadn’t warmed the world up for kung fu in the first place. Besides, by way of catch-up Shaw would later provide the springboards for the career launches of John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung, the stars and filmmakers who would comprise the almost tsunami-like westward wave of Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s.
If the contemporary global-movie market now seems so thoroughly Asianized, with martial arts part of the basic international action-movie grammar and commercial industries thriving in China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan, it’s worth remembering that one of Shaw’s uncommon forays into Hollywood production was with Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, a movie that imagined a dystopian future not only drenched in rain, despair and wrenching economic disparity, but thoroughly infiltrated by the inescapable visible evidence of Asian cultural influence everywhere.