Movie mogul Run Run Shaw (邵逸夫) died this month. While many observers have commented on Shaw Brothers’ contribution to Hong Kong cinema, Shaw’s legacy should also be examined through interactions between Shaw Brothers and Taiwan’s movie industry.
In the late 1940s, the major concern of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government was its war effort against the Chinese Communist Party. When it was forced to move to Taiwan in 1949, the KMT became focused on two priorities: claiming sovereignty over mainland China and asserting legitimacy and authority over Taiwan. Meanwhile, Hong Kong became an ideological battleground between the left-wing and right-wing film studios.
The KMT was eager to win influence in the Hong Kong film industry and stipulated that the film companies set up by Chinese nationals in Hong Kong should be eligible for funding, protection and the full benefit of the KMT’s national film policies.
The KMT was able to exert indirect influence over Hong Kong filmmakers and formed a symbiotic relationship with the British colony’s film industry, especially when left-wing film companies began losing their market in China in the early 1950s.
Shaw Brothers, representing studios from the apolitical right, became the ultimate beneficiary of the KMT’s political ideology and dominated the Chinese film market in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and beyond.
Shaw Brothers brought the integration of film production, distribution and exhibition, and transformed the Hong Kong film industry into the Hollywood of the East. The industry therefore became a conventional glamor-oriented industry, producing works that would not risk political censorship in their new markets.
Taiwan was one of the earliest places in Asia to be acquainted with cinema, but Taiwanese film production was limited and emerged relatively late. When the Japanese colonial administration left Taiwan in 1945, the industry became a vacuum for many years, and the most established cinema-related activity was exhibition.
By 1949, when the KMT moved to Taiwan, there were 146 registered privately run movie theaters showing about 500 films each year. In the early 1950s, between 600 and 700 films were shown in Taiwan annually, but the ratio between foreign-language films and Chinese films was about 2.2:1.
In the early 1960s, most first-release run movie theaters in Taiwan had contracts with Hollywood studios to distribute foreign films, and it was difficult for Chinese-language films to be shown in these theaters.
However, a Shaw Brothers-produced Chinese-language musical, based on traditional “yellow plum” melodies (黃梅調), The Love Eterne (梁山伯與祝英台, directed by Li Hanxiang, 李翰祥) was a hit in 1963. The film changed the situation, and some theaters in Taipei went against their contracts with Hollywood distributors to exhibit the film.
In revenge, eight Hollywood studios stopped supplying movies to local theaters, and the theaters began to release Mandarin-language cinema instead. The first-release run theaters for Mandarin-language films increased from one to three chains between 1963 and 1964, and by the end of the 1960s, 80 percent of movie theaters in Taipei were showing such films. Taiwan and Shaw Brothers helped to break the stranglehold of theater chains on Mandarin cinema. Shaw Brothers became Taiwan’s largest distributor and supplier of Mandarin-language films.