The Shaw Brothers' Sisters: Filmmakers at a Fallen Studio

A series at New York's Metrograph focuses on the women directors whose bold and eccentric films were distributed by the Shaw Brothers.
Sean Gilman

Love in a Fallen City. Photo courtesy of Celestial Pictures.

Almost as long as there’s been a Chinese cinema, there have been Shaw Brothers. The three oldest brothers, Runje, Runde, and Runme, founded the Tianyi Film Company in Shanghai in 1925. Shortly thereafter, Runme and the youngest brother, Run Run, opened a branch of the company in Singapore, eventually expanding to Hong Kong. The Shaw empire crashed with the Japanese invasions, first in Shanghai in 1937 and then Singapore and Hong Kong in 1941. But after the war, thanks to the “more than $4 million in gold, jewelry and currency (they buried) in their backyard”1 they were able to re-open, first in Singapore and then, in the late 1950s, in Hong Kong. Shaw Brothers, with its massive Movietown production lot, became the dominant movie production house in the colony, vanquishing its rival MP & GI (later named Cathay) by the end of the 60s. Synonymous with two of the Hong Kong’s most uniquely impressive genres, the huangmei musical of the early 1960s and the martial arts movies of the late 60s and 70s, Shaw Brothers was the home of directors Li han-hsiang and Cheng Cheh, Chor Yuen and Lau Kar-leung, and stars like Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Gordon Liu, and Kara Hui, all under the direction of Run Run and his wife, producer Mona Fong. They made bright, glossy Mandarin-language genre films with high production values under factory conditions, the closest anyone has ever come to replicating MGM in its heyday.

But in 1970, Shaws production chief Raymond Chow left to form the Golden Harvest studio, which thanks to the massive success of Bruce Lee, a willingness to make movies in Cantonese, and new talents like Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Michael Hui, quickly began to eclipse the Shaws. By the mid 1980s, exhausted from competition with Golden Harvest and other upstart studios like Cinema City and unable to adapt effectively to the changing styles and tastes ushered in by the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Wave, Shaws effectively quit the movie-making business in favor of making television (their channel, TVB, long-dominated the Hong Kong market). They would continue to distribute movies here and there, and still do to this day, but their time at the center of the Hong Kong industry was over.

It’s from these final days of the Shaw Brothers that New York's Metrograph has put together their new series, focusing on the women directors whose films the Shaws distributed from the mid-80s onwards. Ranging from established classics by big name auteurs to obscure oddities, they’re almost all genre films: melodramas, social problem films, and horror movies. The films are mostly from Hong Kong, though they reflect the Shaw wider reach with Taiwanese and Japanese productions as well. Bold and eccentric, but nonetheless grounded in skilled craftsmanship, the "Shaw Sisters" series shines a welcome spotlight on an under-explored area of Chinese cinema.

Love in a Fallen City. Photo courtesy of Celestial Pictures.

Ann Hui is the biggest name to be represented in the series, with two of her romantic melodramas, 1984’s Love in a Fallen City and 1988’s Starry is the Night. One of the leading figures of the Hong Kong New Wave, Hui forms a kind of mirror-image to that movement’s most famous filmmaker, Tsui Hark. Both directors, like much of the New Wave, studied film in the West (Hui in London, Tsui in Texas) before returning to Hong Kong television in the 1970s. Both started out in genre films, with horror movies and comedies, and continued to work in a wide variety of genres throughout their career. But where Tsui would push those genres to their outlandish limits, with a hyper-kinetic style that reeled breathlessly from low to high brow, Hui adopted a more elegant, restrained, but no less idiosyncratic approach. Love in a Fallen City is a prime example of Hui’s more subtly experimental style. A lush period melodrama based on a novella by Eileen Chang, it stars Cora Miao as a divorcée in 1930s Shanghai. She lives with her brothers, and is thus at their, and their wives', mercy, financially and socially (largely because they gambled away all her money on bad investments). The family attempts to arrange a marriage for her youngest sister to a wealthy jet-setting playboy (Chow Yun-fat), but he seems more interested in her instead. A family friend invites her to visit Hong Kong, and there she meets up with him again, as he’s arranged. Crucially, almost all this backstory and plotting is related in conversation, in overheard snippets of gossip and side-eye conversations. Instead of some glorious, love at first sight romantic bliss, we don’t even get to see the first time the two stars meet—we just hear about it the next day. This is both true to Chang’s literary style, an evocation of a time and a place when women’s lives were ruled not so much by their own actions but by the words and decisions of others, and a unique approach to the romantic melodrama, one that privileges the moment and the gesture, the image of romance, over the mundane details of story.

Hui’s approach means spending the bulk of the films runtime not relating plot but luxuriating in the exquisite interplay between two gorgeous, deeply charismatic actors. Chow and Miao had been working together for years, ever since the mid-70s TV soap Hotel which gave Chow his first real break as an actor. Hui had teamed them up before in her third feature, The Story of Woo Viet, a romantic gangster/social problem film that in many ways established the kind of character that would rocket Chow to superstardom a few years later in his work with John Woo and Ringo Lam. He’s all charm here though, a Robert Redford or Cary Grant type, handsome and untethered by convention yet inescapably drawn to the independent-minded woman who he says represents to him an ideal of Chinese womanhood, one who steadfastly refuses to give in to his desires until he agrees to meet her on her terms. It’s Miao’s heroine who quietly dominates the film. She won’t accept anything less than happiness, though it takes the collapse of an entire world to make it happen.

Starry Is the Night

Starry Is the Night. Photo courtesy of Celestial Pictures.

Hui’s 1988 Starry Is the Night features a no less interesting heroine, played by Brigitte Lin. A time-crossed love triangle, Hui chronicles Lin’s relationships with two men: one, her married professor in 1967, played by George Lam (star of Hui’s Boat People); the other one of her students (kind of, she’s a social worker/truant officer and he’s an 18 year old would-be drop out) in 1987, played by David Wu. Lin is a tough, career-minded woman in the present, and a naive, idealistic girl in the past. Each relationship presents the typical complications (pregnancies in the past, professional approbation in the present) and both intersect obliquely with Hong Kong politics. The protest movements somewhat linked to the Cultural Revolution form the backdrop for the 1967 scenes, while Lin works on her friend’s election campaign in the present. Thus the radicalism of protest is equated with youthful idealism while electoral reformism is linked to the old exploiting the young. It’s all very tangled and becomes even more so as the plot and characters circle back on themselves in a ouroboros of self-destruction, the old devouring the young and vice versa. Lin’s performance is the necessary anchor to it all, presenting a rare opportunity to see the great actress work outside of the wuxia confines she’s most known for in the West. 

While Mabel Cheung is not quite as well-known as Hui, she probably should be. Along with her partner Alex Law (they go back and forth on who gets the writing, directing and producing credits), she crafted some of the finest melodramas of the late 1980s with films like An Autumn’s Tale, Painted Faces, and Eight Taels of Gold. Her first film, a student project funded in part by Shaw Brothers, was The Illegal Immigrant, set and shot in New York City. A young man is caught in an INS raid and is forced to either leave the country within three months or establish citizenship. He hires a woman to marry him so he can get a green card and the two eventually fall in love. It’s familiar territory now, though movies like Peter Weir’s Green Card and Sylvia Chang’s Siao Yu came several years later. It shares with the latter, as well as An Autumn’s Tale, a street-level view of the city before it was cleaned up, specifically a Chinatown where everyone speaks Cantonese or Mandarin and everyone knows everyone, or at least their cousin. A city whose garbage-strewn and graffitied concrete landscapes are more inviting than the cramped spaces of the impossible apartments available to recent immigrants eking out a living in the margins. Cheung has a light touch with both the film’s realist, social problem aspects and its more romantic elements, and really only at the end does it feel like a first film. In later movies, Cheung would master the double-ending, giving the audience both happy and tragic conclusions, in effect letting them choose which one to walk away with, which one best met their version of cinematic reality. The Illegal Immigrant is more heavy-handed, and suffers because of it. 

Puppy Love

Puppy Love. Photo courtesy of Celestial Pictures.

Definitely on the light side though is Puppy Love, a farcical comedy directed by So Jing-man. The prologue shows two cousins being born at exactly the same moment in the same hospital. A quick montage relates their childhood rivalries, which are of the slapstick variety. The first half of the film follows them over their last year in high school, where they are constantly fighting with each other and over the attention of one of the boys, a handsome, athletic yet kind and generous type. One girl, taller and more conventionally attractive, is played by Pak Wan-yin, while the other, short and with glasses, is played by Sandy Lam, a veteran of Cinema City’s Happy Ghost (on which director So had worked as an assistant director). It’s those films, with their high school girl settings and goofy, occasionally very dark, comedy that Puppy Love seems to be aping, though without the overbearing masculine (of a sort) presence of their star/producer, Raymond Wong. So instead lets the girls drive the plot, such as it is. Even in the second half of the movie, when they’re attempting to make it in the business world (they end up in the same job at the same company) and trading romantic partners back and forth, the perspective is always theirs, in all their near-homicidal/suicidal glory. In this its a rarity among Hong Kong comedies, which even at their best are led by men. Lam in particular is outstanding, one wishes she’d gotten more chances to star in movies like this. Instead she, like So, only had a handful of movie credits over the next 30 years.

A similar fate befell director Angela Mak, whose 1984 film The Siamese Twins is the best of the series’ horror movies. I haven’t seen Brian De Palma’s Sisters, but from what I gather, The Siamese Twins is kind of like that movie mixed with a Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio-type ghost story. It would have fit in great with the Shaws Horror series the Metrograph ran last fall. Ida Chan plays a young woman who comes home from Canada with a rich suitor in tow.  He wants to marry her but she isn’t so sure. Her childhood friend takes a liking to him though, after they all meet in a wild coincidence at the office of a neurologist Chan has gone to meet because she’s having weird visions and headaches. The first half of the film is spent entailing these four people and gradually awakening them to the fact that Chan is being haunted by the ghost of her conjoined twin sister, who died on the operating table. The doctor who separated them is played by Kwan Hoi-san (you’ll recognize him as the “good” gangster who gets supplanted by Anthony Wong in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled), and he’ll prove to be one of the ghost’s first victims as she takes revenge on all the people who her sister knows. The second half gets pretty weird, with ghost possession via ghost sex and lots of bloody mayhem—it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s basically a lightly comic relationship movie whose edges keep darkening until it turns to outright supernatural horror, a kind of tonal mishmash that encapsulates the utter freedom of Hong Kong cinema at its best.

Casey Chan’s Face to Face, from 2002, on the other hand, comes out of a Japanese horror tradition, though its director and star are from Hong Kong (the movie is based on a story by Ranpo Edogawa). Stephen Fung (director of the Tai Chi Zero movies and husband to Shu Qi), plays a rich bachelor who lives with his best buddy, an artist who paints and makes sculptures of him all day. Inseparable since college, the two are rumored by their friends to be gay and maybe they are and maybe not. One Christmas, Fung hosts a Christmas party and meets a young woman played by Misaki Itô (from Ju-on: The Grudge), whom he promptly marries. Then he goes away on business for six months. In the meantime, the best friend and the wife have hooked up and she’s become pregnant, so when he returns she pretends to be sick for six months. One death leads to another, and eventually Fung rises from his crypt and terrorizes his wife and friend (masked and pretending to be his own uncle). It’s all pretty macabre, in an Edgar Allen Poe sort of way, but Shôsuke Tanihara’s performance as the friend doesn’t really work: he’s desperate right from the start, so he has nowhere to go but ludicrous once the crazy really gets going. Itô’s more constrained performance is better, while Fung is hidden by a mask for most of the movie. The really interesting thing about it is that all of the characters are unreservedly awful: Chan hollows out the revenge narrative, first by positioning the cheating couple as the heroes and then making them be absolutely terrible people, then by prolonging the needlessly cruel torment of Fung’s revenge scheme. Even he’s tired of it by the end.

Twin Bracelets

The Twin Bracelets. Photo courtesy of Celestial Pictures.

Not a horror movie, and all the more harrowing because of it, is Huang Yu-shan’s 1991 The Twin Bracelets. Set and shot in a small coastal community on the mainland, it’s about two best friends who try to navigate their world’s regressive social customs as they reach marriageable age. Horrible marriages abound, where women are routinely beaten and humiliated, and norms dictate that marriages are arranged and, once formalized, the bride spends three days alone in a room (only her husband can visit) and then must return to her parents house for several months. The wedding night itself its a kind of ritualized rape, where the woman must make a show of refusing advances while allowing her husband to essentially force himself on her, breaking any number of ceremonial belts along the way. One of the girls, Huihua (played by Vivian Chan), gets lucky and ends up married to a relatively decent guy, one who values her thoughts and feelings. The other, Xiu (Winnie Lau), ends up with a handsome brute, a local gang leader who is crude and violent. When she violates the rules by fleeing her marital prison and demanding a divorce (for which the community has no concept), the society begins to break down: it simply cannot cope with feminine independence of thought or action (let alone homosexuality, at which the film strongly hints). Unlike all the other women in the series, Huang is Taiwanese, one of the few women directors who could be associated with the New Taiwanese Cinema. Her film shows much the same negotiation with the complexities of tradition and modernity that one finds in the works of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as Fifth Generation Chinese directors like Tian Zhuangzhuang. The Twin Bracelets, picturesque and polemical, is probably the closest the Metrograph series comes to that kind of art-house movie.  

No less feminist though is Angie Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie, from 1985. Explicitly a rebuke to the mythos of the Chinese prostitute as seen in sanitized form in Hollywood’s The World of Suzie Wong (a touchstone film as it was actually shot in Hong Kong, see for example Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story, in which a woman lovingly longs for the return of William Holden, whom she’s convinced is the love of her life). Chen’s film follows twenty years in the life of a prostitute named Mary, played by Pat Ha (star of Patrick Tam’s New Wave classic Nomad). The first half of the film follows her rise to headstrong and stylish prostitute from humble beginnings as a rape victim among the desperately poor fishermen of Hong Kong harbor. Along the way she falls in love with the adopted son of one of her bosses, a mixed race young greaser played by Anthony Wong in his film debut. It’s all very romantic, the seedier sides of her business kept at bay by the hopes of young love, but it the film’s second half, reality steps in. Ever a hustler, Mary tries to set up her own business, and it works for a time, thanks to an able business manager played by Deannie Ip (the two have a strong Mrs. Maisel-Susie Myerson energy). But as it must it all ends in despair and middle age, ghosts of youthful beauty shattered by cruel reality haunting Hong Kong’s past like old movies. Sandra Ng would eventually update this story as a madcap comedy in her Golden Chicken series, with the life story of her prostitute heroine encapsulating the history of Hong Kong from the 80s through the 21st century.

I wasn’t able to track down a copy of Chen’s Maybe It’s Love, the only film in the Metrograph series I haven’t seen. It was her first feature, released in 1984, and it looks to be pretty terrific: a mystery thriller starring Cherie Chung written by Lillian Lee, the reclusive author of the source novels for Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine and Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. After Suzie, Chen directed only one other fiction feature, then retired for twenty years, apparently to make commercials. Since she’s returned to film, she’s focused exclusively on documentaries (I saw her very fine I’ve Got the Blues in Vancouver a couple of years ago). She’s got two different entries on the IMDb, one for her documentaries and one for her fiction films (where she’s billed as “Angela Chan”). And that, unfortunately is the story of most of these Shaw Sisters directors. Only Ann Hui and Mabel Cheung have been consistently making movies, and on the evidence of this series, we’re all the worse off for it.

1. From the New York Times obituary for Run Run Shaw.

"Shaw Sisters" runs August 23 – September 8, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York.

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Long ReadsShaw BrothersAnn HuiMabel CheungAlex LawSo Jing-manAngela MakCasey ChanHuang Yu-shanAngie Chen
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