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Studio of Flying Daggers

Ornate sets, emperor-peasant action, and royal-court face-offs highlight a Shaw Bros. retro

A quixotic choice for a NYFF restoration sidebar, Shaw Brothers Studios was the purest of pulpmeisters and one of the world's great B-movie assembly lines, dominating a post-war Chinese cinema that did not know from A's. An authentic dynasty that began in the dye business in 19th-century Ningbo and remained in control of the four "Run" brothers for nearly 80 years, the Shaw company always sought control over exhibition as well as production and distribution, and by the 1950s their paintbox-hued, ShawScope epics dominated the industry in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. They also did gangbusters distributing to the world's Chinatowns—with different degrees of raciness for different regions—selling a lush, reactionary fantasy about the old China when the reality of the PRC was darkening so many memories.

In its period utopianism, the typical Shaw movie is not terribly unlike the MGM musicals and melodramas of the day: widescreen compositions, stylized sets, provincial story lines. In fact, many of the films, including the perennially popular expressionist fable The Kingdom and the Beauty (1958), are huangmei musicals, sung as Chinese operas (including a variety of Greek choruses narrating the young-emperor-loves-peasant-girl action), but using modern orchestrations and dialogue. Li Han-hsiang, arguably the Shaws' Minnelli, took full advantage of the studio's massive and ornate Forbidden City set, as he did in The Empress Dowager (1975), a rather concisely written slab of historical intrigue in which the young turn-of-the-century emperor contends with his own mother and her scheming eunuchs for power. But his peak moment of pop synthesis may have been The Love Eterne (1962), a beloved and beguilingly performed huangmei version of the cross-dressing Chinese operetta The Butterfly Lovers, in which gender is substantially less crucial than love.

The wuxia pian ventures at the retro are only seminal gestures toward the torrential films of the 1980s-'90s HK explosion; the pleasantly rudimentary action of Chu Yuan's Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan(1972), with an invincible princess-warrior at center stage, moves so fast you barely notice the spray of blood on the walls. Of course, moral objectivity is the mode's ruling guideline, so codes of loyalty are routinely violated in Zhang Che's zoom-amok Blood Brothers (1973), hinging on the personal desolation created by betrayal, and Chu's Killer Clans (1976), a maniacal epic whose story unfurls sequential conspiracies of bloodlust and revenge so deep-dish that the eponymous "societies" unknowingly harbor sleeper assassins "going back three generations!" Intensely melodramatic, Chu's crowning trope is the royal court face-off, in which multiple crosscurrents of eye contact gradually reveal secret alliances and missions.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
photo: FSLC
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

Details

Elegance, Passion, and Cold Hard Steel: A Tribute to Shaw Brothers Studios
New York Film Festival, Walter Reade
October 2 through 13

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Of the non-period films showcased, perhaps Inoue Umetsugu's Hong Kong Nocturne (1966) is the must-see—opening with Sweet Smell strains of Gershwin-ness, it's a vintage Evan Hunter-ripoff musical about three sisters struggling in showbiz, fending off sex work, lapsing into Marilyn-esque musical numbers, and winning go-go contests. Nothing subtle about it, but the Americanizing period is captured in amber, and Umetsugu knows how to make that anamorphic frame tell a story.

 
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