Arts, Culture & Media

Run Run Shaw, the great-grandfather of Hong Kong film, dies at age 106

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He was the father, or rather grandfather, or really great-grandfather of Hong Kong cinema. He was Run Run Shaw.

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The Hong Kong entertainment mogul, one half of Shaw Brothers Studio and the head of Television Broadcast Limited, died this morning at the impressive age of 106.

Quite a feat, considering that the kind of films he's famous for producing were, well, pretty violent.

Without him, "we wouldn't have Chow Yun-Fat today, we wouldn't have Andy Lau today," said James Marsh, a freelance film critic based in Hong Kong. "The face of Hong Kong cinema would be unrecognizable without him."

Run Run Shaw produced more than 1,000 films of all sorts, including Blade Runner. But what he's most famous for, Marsh says, is sparking the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s.

Run Run Shaw was born Shao Yifu in 1907, in China. He got his nickname from his father — it was a pun on the word "rickshaw." At 19, Shaw traveled to Singapore with his brother Run Me Shaw, where they opened a chain of movie theaters. It was a pretty lucrative venture until the Japanese invaded in 1941 and took their film equipment.

After the war, Run Run moved to Hong Kong to get in on the burgeoning film industry there. He and his brother created Shaw Movietown, a studio complex where actors lived and worked and cranked out film after film — in its heyday, nearly one a week.

"Run Run Shaw was always frank that he didn't care about [film] as an art form, he cared about it as a business," said Marsh, "He saw it as a profitable enterprise and martial arts is what the people wanted."

Indeed, Shaw had a keen sense for what the people wanted. Aside for showcasing martial arts, his films often rehashed old Chinese folktales, as he explained to BBC reporter Alan Wicker in a 1960s documentary. 

"We have a history of 4,000 years and most of the stories are known to Chinese, and we have to make those pictures according to those stories," said Shaw.

But these stories didn't only connect with Asian audiences. Films like The One-Armed Swordsman, or Come Drink with Me, or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, became big crossover hits in the West.

"You only need to listen to a director like Tarantino to understand how important these films were," said Marsh. 

In fact, Quentin Tarantino put the Shaw Brothers 'SB' logo in the opening credits to his film, Kill Bill Vol. 1. It's just one of his many nods to the influence of Hong Kong cinema.

Marsh goes even farther to say that, without Shaw's influence, movies like Kill Bill, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might never have been made.

"The style of fighting used in The Matrix is pure Shaw Brothers and was actually choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, one of the directors who made his way up through the Shaw Brothers," said Marsh.

Yuen Woo-ping went on to choreograph Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. 

"He blew the doors off of Hong Kong Cinema all over again, and then introduced it to a whole new generation," said Marsh.

Run Run Shaw was knighted in the 1970s by Queen Elizabeth II. He even had an asteroid named after him. 

He died Tuesday at his home in Hong Kong.

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