“You know, many kung-fu styles are based on the movements of animals. I, myself, am a master of Chicken Style kung-fu; I see a fight and I run away.” – joke written by Jason R. Chin, age 8
Run Run Shaw is dead. He was the younger of two Chinese brothers. Together, they created the movie genre known as the “kung-fu movie.” He was 106. (Here is the New York Times obituary. You should give it a read.) You know the genre; the weird plots, the bad dubbing, the bad special effects… all staples of weekend afternoon tv. In fact, it was there that I have my fondest movie memories.
In the seventies, my brother and I (and sometimes some neighborhood friends) would gather to watch kung-fu movies in the basement of our home. My father would watch with us and occasionally point out familial resemblances to the characters on-screen, “Look! It’s your Uncle Jim!” During commercials we would beat the living shit out of each other attempting to mimic the moves we just watched. Sometimes, my father take the opportunity to try to teach us how to actually kick and punch correctly. (just writing that sentence give me chills at my poor father frustration as he tried to show me how to make a fist. How can I remember that so clearly? Weird.) I remember this particular exchange: “Dad, that’s a swastika! Were old Chinese people nazis?” “No, we had that symbol first. The nazis ripped us off. I think it means good luck.”
I never stopped loving those old Shaw Brothers movies and I watch them whenever I can. The sequences in Kill Bill that specifically ape the style were a wonderful surprise in the theater. And the sheer creativity of Stephen Chow reminds of the original kung-fu films as well. In many ways, the Shaw Brothers were a more successful version of Roger Corman, who churned out many beloved B-movies here in the States in the 50s. Both set out to give the film audience what they wanted; action, violence, a dash of romance, bad guys getting what they deserved, Good eventually winning… the Shaw Brothers just did one thing smarter; they owned their own movie theaters (and when the Japanese invaded and took everything they owned, the brothers had the last laugh; forewarned, they had buried more than $4 million in gold and jewels in their backyard.)
SIDENOTE: The title of “sensei” is an honorable one. It’s a japanese term used for teachers or someone who has great expertise. I personally prefer the Chinese word of sifu. It’s usually used for teachers as well, but as a term of respect for people in skilled trades such as a cook, a painter.. or a performing artist.
Growing up I was often called Bruce Lee as an insult. And it really wasn’t but it did usually mean that I was about to get beat up. Once, outside of the ImprovOlympic, a girl I know was being hassled by these three guys. I loudly told her that she was needed in the building and I stood between her and the three guys. She left and one of the guys asked, “You going to fight all three of us?” Another said, “Motherfucker thinks he’s Jackie Chan!” I didn’t answer. Not from any tactic or fear, but I was amazed… after decades of “Bruce Lee” being the default asian go-to it had been changed to “Jackie Chan.” Fascinating. And then they left.
Jackie Chan, by the way, has been in several Shaw Brothers movies.
Here is the trailer for one of my favorite Shaw Brothers movies. Also, YouTube has a TON of Shaw Brothers movies if you’ve never seen one before.. they’re great fun.
All this to say, Thanks to the Shaw Brothers. They invented a movie genre that I love very much.