Thursday 31 October 2019

When Fortune Smiles (4) - John Snadden writes on The Life and Times of Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest

Editor's note: This is the final in a four part series about the life and business times of legendary Hong Kong film producer Raymond Chow. Chow died in November 2018. The first part can be found  if you click here the second if you click here  and the third if you click here John Snadden is a Melbourne cinephile, film distributor and writer with a longstanding interest in Chinese cinema. His notes on new Chinese films can be found throughout the Film Alert 101 blog.

Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow
Not surprisingly, by the early 2000s Peter Chan had left Golden Harvest and had co-founded a mainland company which went on to produce some of China's best films of that period, including Wuxia  (aka Dragon), a Donnie Yen martial-arts/murder mystery and the Jet Li, Andy Lau historical epic, Warlords

The second half of the 1990s saw dark clouds gathering ominously on the horizon. They were to break on a number of fronts and eventually affect the long-term futures of Golden Harvest and Raymond Chow.

The painful irony of these coming years was to be these events were completely out of the hands of any one at Golden Harvest.

But before we get to that, I think the following is worth relating. These facts, as such, have been culled from various sources, plus some contemporary media coverage. I'd heard about this “disagreement” at the time and watched it unfold with particular interest.

My father, who was no slouch as a businessman, once told me how some large, well run international corporations can reach a point where they seem to run themselves (he was talking about the UK-based Swire Group), and where owners and senior managers can become totem figures. 

Jackie Chan, Rumble in the Bronx

The very successful Raymond Chow could never be described as a totem figure. He was hands on and he knew everything about the Golden Harvest Company. In mid-1996, he was on a stop-over in Melbourne and whilst reading one of the city's tabloids noticed an advert for a special season of the Cantonese language film, Rumble in the Bronx, being screened at a suburban independent cinema. Chow made some enquiries and learnt the theatre owner had hired the movie from a local Chinese cinema proprietor, who, as it turned out, didn't hold the distribution rights for this Jackie Chan film.   

Raymond Chow informed the cinema owner he would have to pay a hefty fine to Golden Harvest, plus a standard fee if he wanted to continue screening Rumble in the Bronx,The Chinese theatre owner became involved and the situation soon devolved into a 3-way stand-off, with the HK entrepreneur threatening to take the print from both exhibitors. Each party could see where this was potentially heading. Normally, an executive like Chow would pass this problem to his legal department - and then move on. But the co-founder of Golden Harvest wanted this dispute solved – quick smart!  Albeit, at the same time he didn't want to further line the silk pockets of the local legal fraternity. Chow stayed in Melbourne and worked out an agreement between the film company and the suburban cinema owner (by this time the Chinese exhibitor had already incurred the wrath of Chow). 

All this eventually came to light with the new advertising that the suburban theatre was forced to run when Rumble continued its limited engagement.  A daily newspaper and assorted street press had great fun in highlighting the new publicity for a “film which wasn't allowed to be named, and a star whose name wasn't allowed to be shown.” The advertising flyers for this programme have become highly collectable. 

By the late 1990s, the falling audience numbers for Cantonese films world-wide was becoming a long-term trend.The reality was the Hong Kong film industry was not in a downturn it was in decline. Golden Harvest wasn't producing as many feature films, and it was mostly Jackie Chan movies and one-off blockbusters (The Storm Riders, A Man Called Hero) which were keeping the company in the black. 

But there was cause for optimism when it came to the large but untapped cinema-going market in mainland China. Golden Harvest's hierarchy was being encouraged by China's government to develop multiplexes throughout Southern China. The potential for growth was enormous. But at the same time, Raymond Chow wasn't in a big hurry to move the company's film production to China, mainly because the state censors regularly banned / severely cut movies from Hong Kong film-makers.

In 1998, Golden Harvest's co-founder, Leonard Ho, died suddenly. It was a huge shock to all at the company – and especially Raymond Chow. Ho had shunned the limelight during his career, but with Chow they were the driving forces behind the success of Golden Harvest. Raymond Chow had lost a business partner and a close friend.

In what must have seemed like a 1-2 punch, the same year saw Hong Kong's new Communist rulers fail to renew the lease on the Diamond Hill property. Instead, a public housing development was to be built on the studio acreage. For a business operation this size there was nothing in Hong Kong even comparable, let alone available. It would have been easier to relocate Golden Harvest to Southern China. But Raymond Chow wasn't yet ready to take this leap of commercial faith. 

Only a small number of films were produced by Golden Harvest in the following years. In 2003, My Lucky Star, a Canto comedy-drama, was officially the final movie made by the studio.

My Lucky Star
Meanwhile, Raymond Chow had been pushing ahead with new cinemas in China, and the profits on those investments were impressive.The mainland Chinese were embracing a movie-going culture, which now included a growing selection of local releases, mostly due to the recently relaxed censorship regime.  

By the early 2000s, rumours had begun circulating about the possible sale of the Golden Harvest Company. It was strongly suggested the likely buyer would be a mainland businessman. Once this prospective sale became public, Raymond Chow enthusiastically promoted the business as being the future for mainland Chinese film production and exhibition. It was also around this time that Run Run Shaw was seeking buyers for the Shaw Brothers Film and TV studio.

Times were definitely a-changing....and both entrepreneurs knew they wouldn't be playing major roles in the new corporations. These industry titans were wise enough to know when to leave. Each had witnessed the ravages of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and they understood the arbitrary nature of China's one-party rule. It was a world where policy changes for political aims ran roughshod over sound commercial business practice and long-term planning. 

Orange Sky Golden Harvest logo
Mr Wu.….and beyond
In 2007, Raymond Chow sold his shareholding in Golden Harvest to Wu Kebo, the head of a mainland media business. Mr Wu is one of a new breed of Chinese entrepreneurs. The company now wore the awkward title “Orange Sky Golden Harvest”. Wu Kebo promised to bring back the banner years of Golden Harvest, with a slate of prestigious films to be produced in the next 12-18 months.  It was to be an announcement he would trot out regularly in the coming years though in the result there were hardly any films made.

In the end, the figures speak for themselves: between 1990-2007, Golden Harvest       
produced and released approximately 120 feature films, and between 2007-2016, Orange Sky Golden Harvest produced and released one feature film, a comedy. 

Since 2013, Orange Sky Golden Harvest (OSGH) has been badly affected by the slowdown of film exhibition in China (not a good time to be building cinemas). The latter mostly as a result of the CCP reducing the quota on Hollywood films being allowed into the Middle Kingdom, and a renewed emphasis on heavy censorship of all new releases. These party diktats had brought the once thriving commercial sector to a near standstill.

In 2017, the Dadi Group, China's second largest cinema chain, purchased all the OSGH theaters on the mainland.This left Wu Kebo's company with a handful of cinemas in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The long-established Golden Village partnership also came to an end that year, when OSGH bought out the Australian partners in what had been an acrimonious business transaction.

With the recent poor performance of OSGH, one has to ask: Would OSGH be a better business if Raymond Chow had stayed on after the sale? Who really knows!?  But, I suspect, Chow might offer a philosophical answer to such a question and that could be: “Where decline is part of the business cycle – so is renewal.”

In a way, this company has now gone full circle and is again a small player, but this time in the world's fastest growing region. Whether OSGH has the talent and financial nouse to become once again a major entity in world cinema – is something we will have to just wait and see. 

In his later years, when Raymond Chow might have paused to reflect upon his past and career, I'm sure there would have been much to be proud of in such a rich and fulfilled life.   

Tuesday 29 October 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare rages about a new edition of Marcel Carne's DRÔLE DE DRAME (France, 1937)

"England as imagined by a Frenchman"
Marcel Carné’s second feature, and his first masterpiece, was Drôle de Drame from 1937 (following his feature debut, Jenny in 1936.) The American title for the picture is Bizarre, Bizarre which doesn't quite capture it. Perhaps something closer to "Laugh till you Cry”, although the original title is basically untranslatable. 
Like 1936's Jenny the setting is England (as imagined by a Frenchman.) But unlike that film's Prévertian dark narrative with a mother who's basically a high class pimp, and her naïve daughter, the mode for Drôle is high farce.
This wonderful picture is like an exhaustive textbook which opens a door to the cream of 30's French cinema. Beginning with a cast from heaven, following the screens, the first appearance of the titanic star of Grémillon’s La Petite Lise (1931) and L'Herbier's 1930 L'Argent, the immense Pierre Alcover, here in drag going undercover as the chief inspector in a mystery sting. 
"master comédien Louis Jouvet"
Next, one of the cores of the show, master comédien Louis Jouvet impersonating a puritanical Anglican Minister, the hypocrisy running in his blood with an accent and speech pattern that insists you learn French just to hear what he does with the ends of sentences. It's one of the most amazing performances in French cinema. 
"mousey Michel Simon"
Then the timid brother, played by a mousey Michel Simon, a fresh faced début by pretty boy Jean-Pierre Aumont, and not least, the superb Jean-Louis Barrault as a crazed killer of murderers who initiates and then joins the mayhem. The pearly white bum in the final screen is also his. 
This is just the male cast. Françoise Rosay leads the women. The crew is comparably superb. Score by Maurice Jaubert, Photographed by Shuftan, Production Design by Alexandre Trauner, Henri Alékan in an early gig as assistant cameraman. The screenplay by Prévert and Carné is adapted from a novel by Storer Clouston and must be Prévert’s sole excursion into low or high comedy. It's a doozy. 
"pretty boy Jean-Pierre Aumont"
The picture is so exhaustively funny for its internal references and for the sheer stylistic weight Carné encourages from each individual performer to amplify their personal styles (physical and vocal) to the max, it may seem a little overwhelming at first. The dialogue alone in its multiple regional and personal variations of line readings is worth going back to Alliance for all those French courses you used to avoid back when.
"superb Jean-Louis Barrault"
In any case the picture comes with my recomm-endation as Carné’s first fully realized masterpiece, followed next year in 1938 by the sublime Boulevardier piece, with Jouvet again, and Arletty, Hôtel du Nord
This disc marks effectively the last of Carné’s features to make it to Blu-ray. It should but doesn't supersede an older MK2 DVD and its American port on the now defunct HVE label over 12 years ago. I am sorry to say the translations of Carné’s movies into new digital restorations over the last decade or so have been uneven, to put it mildly, with the best work probably coming out of StudioCanal including Le Jour se Lève and Quai des Brûmes, as well as several post war Carnés. The MK2 holdings, of which this is one, have not fared at all well. 
The most botched of the major, up to now Carné restorations was the 4K hatchet job Lab Eclair did on his 1944 wartime masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis. The 4K and the Blu-ray disc was so consistently softened by massively over-zealous DVNR which rendered the image softer than the old DVDs, and very weak grading which tended to erase shadow definition. Disgracefully IMO this FUBAR was awarded a prize from the judging panel at the 2012 Bologna by judges who had obviously either never watched the fucking thing, or never really even understood or cared how awful it looked (and still looks).
I am mortified to report that this new Blu-ray is another giant turkey, taken from a new 4K restoration which was released last week in France only so far, on a small label called ESC, from the rights-holder MK2. 
The 4K work and restoration on Drôle was handed over to a new posthouse called Vectracom about which nobody really knows anything. All I can surmise is it's a general purpose industrial strength digitization outfit based in somewhere like Karachi with outreach branches including France. 
I am sorry to say some sort of inexplicable weirdness seems to have afflicted the grading and encoding work on Drôle to the point one can only call it a total fuckup. It is very difficult to explain what I think has gone on with this mess, and to an extent I am deferring to French critic Rémy Pignatiello who is a genuine technical expert in these things. 
To begin, the image is too soft, with waxy undefined facial features and clothing textures which display no detail, suggesting massive overdrive on the digital noise reduction (DVNR). There is no true black anywhere in the film as though it was dialed down to 5 out of 10. The buttons on Jouvet's MInister's cloak for instance are dark gray, and it looks like both black and white levels have had completely artificial settings unrelated to true white or black which results overall in hardly any true contrast or dynamic range. To add to this soup of texture there's also no apparent gamma or visual depth.
It's a real bloody mess and sadly it appears to be inherent to the 4K, so there's no way someone could even revisit the master and make a new, superior disc encode from what is basically rubbish grading. 
This disaster received CNC funding last year when it was created. I wish there were some recourse to this plundering not only of all too rare cash resources for restoration work handed out willy-nilly to god knows what. These are things that once done will not see any more work spent on them, if ever, for 20 years.

Monday 28 October 2019

Film Alert's first E-book - "On Blu-ray" - Collected Reviews by David Hare

David Hare introduces Sans Lendemain (Max Ophuls, France, 1939)
 Opening Night of Cinema Reborn 2018
Today marks the completion of an exercise that David Hare and I have been pursuing for just some little time. For the first time, the Film Alert 101 blog has assembled a collection of reviews and  short essays by one of its most prolific contributors. Hopefully there will be more such exercises in the future.

The  new e-book  consists of pieces  written between 2016 and 2019 and represents a complete selection of David's reviews which appeared first on Facebook and then, revised and edited, on the Film Alert 101 blog.

All told there are 132 entries on films and film-makers, some short, some lengthy. The films range from Carl Th. Dreyer’s Michael (1924) to four films made in 2018 - First Reformed, Ladies in Black, Roma and Transit.  The film-makers range from Budd Boetticher to Jean Vigo. 

Those who would like to read these notes again, or for the first time, you just need to click on this link to go to a document hosting service where you can read or download the file or you can  send an email to   If you send an email you will then be sent a large pdf file which you may download or otherwise read at your leisure. There is no charge.

If in gratitude for the prodigious scholarship on display readers wished to support the retrieval and renewed discussion on the cinema’s masterpieces and more David has suggested you might make a donation to another cause that always appreciates the generosity of cinephiles, the Cinema Reborn fund established under the aegis of the Australian Cultural Fund. Donations of $2 and above are tax deductible and if you click on this link you will go straight through 

Please don’t hesitate to pass this news of a striking new collection of contemporary film criticism to any of your friends or acquaintances.

Kay and David Hare

Wednesday 23 October 2019

When Fortune Smiles (3) - John Snadden writes on The Life and Times of Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest

Editor's note: This is the third in a four part series. The first part can be found  if you click here and the second if you click hereJohn Snadden is a Melbourne cinephile, film distributor and writer with a longstanding interest in Chinese cinema. His notes on new Chinese films can be found throughout the Film Alert 101 blog.

Golden Harvest Sky cinema, Mong Kok
From the late 1970s, Golden Harvest under Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho had invested wisely in property, theme parks and cinemas world-wide, including a profitable and long standing partnership with Australia's Village Roadshow Theatre chain, under the banner of Golden Village.

Leonard Ho
The Golden Harvest cinemas in Hong Kong have always set the highest standards for cinema-going. Today, the luxurious Sky Cineplex in Kowloon is the current flagship theatre for the organisation, and provides a state-of-the-art viewing experience.

In the late 1990s, I visited the plush Golden Harvest cinemas in Central on Hong Kong Island more than a few times, and mainly for the following reasons: Chinese audiences usually refrained from talking during a film and the “No Smoking” regulations were strictly enforced (at the time, unlike any other theatre in Hong Kong). A very different era.    

Raymond Chow might have held Hollywood at arm's length during these years, but Golden Harvest did invest in a small number of Hollywood productions. Most notably crowd pleasing comedies the Ninja Turtle    movies and two Cannonball Run pics. The films were surprise hits on their cinema debuts and have been paying handsome dividends ever since.

The late 1980s and early 90s were Golden Harvest's best years and saw scores of Cantonese language films produced and exhibited.

Raymond Chow never forgot the audiences who wanted escapist fare on their regular visits to the cinema. The early 90s saw many outstanding commercial releases. They were often funny, clever, exciting and never boring! Plus, there seemed to be no taboo subjects, everything and everyone were fair game. It was a golden time for Hong Kong film. 

I realise it's nearly impossible to pick a small number of movies which represent Golden Harvest at its best. But here goes!

Her Fatal Ways (1990) starring Carol (Do-Do) Cheng (above) was a huge hit in Hong Kong which spawned three sequels. The film was an hilarious take on  Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, with Cheng arriving in HK from Beijing to teach the locals a thing or two about law enforcement – mainland style!

To Be Number One (1991, poster above) An epic gangster drama about a real-life mobster, Crippled Ho (Ray Liu), a Chiu Chow peasant who in the 1960s became the most feared crime figure in Hong Kong. The violence may have been wincingly brutal but the narrative and recreation of the 1960's island colony made this film something special.

From Beijing With Love (1994) Hong Kong's King of Comedy in the 90s was Stephen Chow (above) and he was in fine form with this bloody and bloody funny James Bond spoof. The movie is so inspired and so random there's a genuine Monty Python vibe to it. Chow's co-star, Anita Yuen, has trouble keeping a straight face in most of her scenes with Chow. The story-line has Ling Ling Chat (Cantonese for 007) sent to recover a dinosaur's head stolen by a gang of international villains. Pure comedy gold!

Sex and Zen(1991, poster above) was a notorious exploitation feature which found favour with Canto middle class audiences, who certainly got the joke! The pic follows the ups and downs of a young scholar who becomes a Ming Dynasty Mr Ed after an equine penis transplant. Through good luck more than anything, Sex and Zen found an appreciative non-Asian audience in Australia in the mid-90s, via an art-house chain. It even got the reviewer from the Sydney Morning Herald all steamed up when he breathlessly described this Sino oddity as “A bedroom banquet!”

It was no surprise to Hong Kong's business community when in 1994 the Golden Harvest Company was listed on the local stock exchange. From day one the stock was seen as a good investment which attracted mum and dad shareholders and the likes of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, who in the late 20thcentury was the richest man in Asia.  

1997-2007: The Handover and a Hard Rain a coming...
Hong Kong of the mid-1990s, saw a population which was seriously worried about their lives and livelihoods post 1997, when the British colony returned to Chinese rule under China's Communist Party. Only six years before, Hong Kong's populace watched in horror on their TV screens as PLA tanks and soldiers crushed and shot students in the Tiananmen Square protests. Any person who could afford to leave Hong Kong – did! The latter included the big names of the Cantonese film industry: Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Stephen Chow, Maggie Cheung and others... Film-makers such as Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Kirk Wong and Clara Law also joined the exodus of talent to the West. 

This loss of screen creativity coincided with a falling box-office for local films (or was it the cause?). Since 1993, Hollywood movies were regularly outperforming Cantonese pics financially. This was something that had, literally, never happened before. Hong Kong was one of a handful of international markets which Hollywood was never able to dominate, mainly because the local product was so popular. But the audience was changing and there was a hunger for Western culture from Hong Kong's youth.

One of the bright lights of Canto cinema during this period were the films from United Filmmakers Organisation (UFO Ltd), a production company set up by veteran actor Eric Tsang, US-trained director Peter Chan Ho-Sun (above) and director/writer Lee Chi-Ngai. The gender bending comedy He's a Woman She's a Man (Peter Chan Ho-Sun, 1994) and the raunchy drama Twenty-Something (Teddy Chan, 1994) were big hits with the young and tertiary educated. UFO Films were also introducing new stars like Anita Yuen, Kelly Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro to an admiring movie going public. By 1995, Raymond Chow had offered a production and distribution deal for the UFO product. It was a good move which allowed UFO to produce quality films on a regular basis. For at least the next five years, UFO releases considerably bolstered Golden Harvest's bottom line.

Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai
Comarades, Almost a Love Story
In 1997, I interviewed Peter Chan following the release of his popular and award-winning immigrant drama, Comrades, Almost a Love Story. I asked him were there any plans for Golden Harvest to market Comrades to an overseas audience. His blunt reply was: “Golden Harvest only promotes Jackie Chan's films internationally.” 

Poster for He's a Woman She's a Man 
It was a real pity (then and now) that polished productions from UFO like Jacob Cheung's lesbian tale Intimates (1997), Mabel Cheung's HK-Euro romance City of Glass (1998) and Lost and Found (1996), a visually and emotionally beguiling romantic fantasy starring Kelly Chan, weren't given a chance to be seen by foreign audiences outside the Chinatown circuit. 

Poster, City of Glass
(Part 4 to follow)

Monday 21 October 2019

The Current Cinema - Ben Cho tracks down Carlos Reygadas' new film OUR TIME (Mexico, 2018)

God only knows how much of Carlos Reygadas' latest Our Time is a reflection of his own predilections in the bedroom but here's what we do know: (1) the Mexican auteur cast himself, his own wife and kids in the roles of a family dealing with the disintegration of an open(ish) marriage, (2) his previous film Post Tenebras Lux was said to be semi-autobiographical, and (3) there's nothing featuring his own wife in Our Time approaching the shock opening of his 2005 film Battle in Heaven (in case you forgot about it [unlikely] or never bothered, that film caused a minor stir due to its opening scene involving a graphic blow job featuring an attractive young woman and an unattractive fat guy). 

But in Our Time Reygadas' wife, Natalia Lopez, is not subjected to any such explicitness but instead dialogue stretches longer than most seen in Reygadas' work to date and agonisingly cringey cuckolded behaviour by her husband. 

What difference does it really make if Our Time is autobiographical or Lopez is featured in some pretty tame sex scenes? None. But over the course of three long hours watching this marital drama unfold you can't help but ponder such things and by casting himself and his family and dragging this out for three hours are we NOT meant to at least consider to what extent Reygadas is working through his own personal problems? 

Despite some visually-impressive moments peppered throughout this doesn't have quite the same knock-out look and feel of Post Tenebras Lux and there's scant exploration of the feminine experience in this doomed marriage, something which would have broken up the dull masculine energy which Reygadas the actor brings to screen. 

So what are we left with in the end? Reygadas' cuck-poet agonising as he copes with the reality of letting his wife sleep around and develop a blossoming love with an American horse whisperer while he juggles the demands of being a world-renowned poet and a bull-rancher (and of course he would have to be in charge of the alpha male bulls while his own patriarchal status wanes). 

The highlights are reminiscent of Post Tenebras Lux, narrative detours which are loosely connected to the central premise but could have been equally excised with not too much damage to the overall story: a playful war of the sexes between children on mud lake, a trip to a concert hall to see an orchestra, a flight across a dazzling cityscape, early morning unrest of bulls which leads to one falling off a cliff. These moments pack the biggest visual punch and make for more compelling viewing than the couple's marital decay. At one point as we see Reygadas visit a dying friend I couldn't help but think of the Julio Cortazar of 62 and Hopscotch and wonder if this sort of work is a very distant artistic relative to those books: infuriating relationship drama with plenty of detours and strange moments to its poetry. 

Maybe some enterprising producer at PornHub should enlist Reygadas and give him a huge bag of cash to make an epic cuckold humiliation porno in the same way they supported Bella Thorne with Her & Him on their premium network. With Our Time he's basically made an epic cuckold humiliation porno minus the pornography so it wouldn't be a stretch for him to actually insert some visually-stunning sex scenes and really delve deeper into the corrosive effect on the soul open marriages can have. For all the coke parties, the drunken fucking, the topless webcamming, the bullfighting in Our Time there's nothing really penetrating about its take on sex and marriage.  After the "lights" of earlier work is this auteur starting to dim? 

Saturday 19 October 2019

Judy and I

There were some things that got in the way. When the ABC (I think) ran the Andy Hardy movies I was old enough to regard them, and the family gathering round to watch them, with disdain. Cheap sentimentality it seemed to me.

Then there was geography. Brunswick and Coburg had five cinemas along its Sydney  Road spine running from the Empire down near Dawson Street up to the Plaza in Coburg. But the Hoyts Padua, Melbourne's greatest art  deco palace atop the hill on Sydney Road, was the place to go for first release movies from the companies whom Hoyts dealt with - Fox, Warners and United Artists. MGM movies didn’t get into Brunswick until they were months old. Old. Old. The Alhambra was the last place movies played. Three programs a week including Wednesday ranch nights. But not MGM movies.

Brunswick was not a place for Judy Garland fans.

wonder whether the first Judy Garland movie I saw was her last, Ronald Neame’s I Could 
Singing. Made in 1963 and reaching Melbourne at last when it was slipped into the underground Albany, a former newsreel theatre. I didn’t know, unless Colin Bennett in The Age made reference to it, that it was a bit of a take on Garland’s own life. Troubled star going to London to try and make  a comeback. Garland sang five songs in †he film. "I Am the Monarch of the Sea" (Judy Garland and Boys) from H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan, "Hello Bluebird", words and music by Cliff Friend"'It Never Was You", Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, "By Myself", Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and "I Could Go On Singing", Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg

At the screening I attended every song she song was met with a round of quite vigorous if a bit self-conscious applause by a small coterie of fans sitting otherwise quietly throughout. Garland was forty two when whe made the movie, close to a decade and a half since MGM had given her the flick after Summer Stock  in 1950.

So it took me quite long time over the years to see most of her films and certainly all of the great ones – The Wizard of Oz, Meet me in St Louis, The Pirate, The Clock and A Star is Born. Bill Collins and Foxtel made a huge contribution to the minutiae of her career. The task  still isn’t completed because I’ve never felt any great curiosity about going back to those apparently beloved Andy Hardy movies. I have however developed quite a soft spot for the Gershwin based Girl Crazy with Mickey Rooney.

Rooney is represented in Judy  in the flashbacks to Garland’s early days at MGM when that total arsehole Louis B Mayer manipulated Garland’s mind and her career, forced drugs upon her, exploited her naivety and no doubt felt no shame. These are brilliant moments in a movie which seeks to link those early days in the movie business with the alcohol and prescription drug-fuelled shambles that her life degenerated into. 

To compensate Garland hurled herself at shameless males. They might be called bludgers in Oz-speak and they let her down over and over again. 

Rupert Goold’s film and Renee Zellweger’s performance may fiddle with the facts as they are generally known. The last husband who seems to abandon her in the movie was apparently the person who found her overdosed body for starters. But it’s all quibble. It's quite a movie. Zellweger makes it of course, using her own voice which may well be in about the same shape that Garland’s was at the end, or maybe that's the point she's trying to make. Notwithstanding she sings half a dozen songs and every one of them set my heart throbbing.

...and as a reminder of just what Garland could do, here she is singing the greatest Broadway song ever written.Just click here for the Youtube version 

Wednesday 16 October 2019

When Fortune Smiles (2) - John Snadden writes on The Life and Times of Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest

Editor's note: This is the second in a four part series. The first part can be found  if you click here

In late 1971, Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho purchased the then shuttered Cathay Film Studio on Diamond Hill Road, Kowloon.This was to become the focal point of Golden Harvest's operations for the next twenty-five years and one of the most important studio complexes in South East Asia. 

Despite the early success of Golden Harvest in the local market, Chow still harbored a desire on making it big in Hollywood with a new Chinese star. In the mid-70s, he was involved in a series of co-productions with British and Australian film companies of hybrid genre films with Cantonese and European stars. The best known of these titles were Stoner and The Man From Hong Kong, the latter featuring ex-007 George Lazenby as a kung fu fighting criminal kingpin with Jimmy Wang-Yu (a role originally written for Bruce Lee) as his nemesis, a relentless, Dirty Harry-styled HK cop. The movies were good fun but all died at their respective box-offices.

Michael Hui
It was also during the mid-1970s and in the realm of comedy that Raymond Chow struck gold when he signed up the popular small screen team, the Hui brothers, to make a series of big screen comedies. Films like Games Gamblers Play (1974), Private Eyes (1976) and Security Unlimited (1981) were to become the highest box-office earners of the 1970s in Hong Kong. The three brothers, led by the stone-faced misanthrope, Michael Hui, captivated audiences with their hilarious (mis)adventures. Even today, the movies remain as funny as ever.   

Jackie Chan, pre-Golden Harvest, Drunken Master
It wasn't until later in the decade that Chow finally found a Hong Kong actor whom he thought capable of cracking Hollywood. His name was Jackie Chan and his kung fu comedies, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master, both made for Seasonal Film Corporation, had caught Raymond Chow's attention. Hong Kong cinema-goers were enjoying Chan's new take on martial-arts cinema, and it was a trend Chow felt he could sell to the West. He worked with Enter the Dragon helmsman Robert Clouse and they came up with a movie idea which both saw as offering the best of Jackie Chan in a recognisably American setting. The film was Battle Creek Brawl (1980) which has Chan taking on numerous bare knuckled fighters in an American-style martial-arts competition, set during the depression era.

Jackie Chan, Battle Creek Brawl
Battle Creek Brawl was no Enter the Dragon, but Chan had made a favourable impression on the studio decision makers. Chow, Chan and Clouse were ready to explore further offerings from Hollywood. But to the sheer disbelief of the Chinese producer and the American director, Chan began telling studio heads and journalists: “I am not the new Bruce Lee. I am Jackie Chan!”  “Jackie who?” was the dour response from film executives. And as quickly as Chow and Chan had arrived in Hollywood – they were leaving the City of Angels.

Raymond Chow and Jackie Chan returned to Hong Kong where both were determined to make big names for themselves in the Cantonese movie industry. Hollywood could wait...   

1980-1995: A Golden Era.Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho carefully planned and plotted the growth of Golden Harvest, and watched it become the biggest movie making entity since the heyday of the Shaw Brothers and Cathay dream factories from the 1950s and 60s.

In the vanguard of this expansion was Jackie Chan as star and director Chan’s films were often a ground breaking and death defying mix of action and comedy. His creative inspiration was a curious blend of Buster Keaton and Peking Opera, with a grab bag of influences in-between. The public loved Chan and his films. They also liked his screen family: a repertory of stars including Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Maggie Cheung. 

A Chinese Ghost Story
Golden Harvest also encouraged young film-makers and gave fresh talent such as Ching Siu-Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987), Yuen Kwai (Ninja in the Dragon's Den, 1982) and Johnny Mak (Long Arm of the Law,1984) a creative freedom in genre film-making. Chow rewarded directors and stars when their films performed well financially. At the time, Golden Harvest offered a very different production environment to the Shaw Brothers studio, and by the early 1980s Shaw Brothers talent often headed towards Golden Harvest after their contracts had expired. 

The 1980s which saw the continuing rise of Golden Harvest also witnessed the decline of the Shaw Brothers Film Studio. By the early 80s, Run Run Shaw and his business partners were investing heavily in Hong Kong television and developing the TVB commercial network. In hindsight, Chow and Shaw had avoided what could have been a protracted and damaging corporate stoush. In what appeared to be a tacit agreement, both businessmen decided to concentrate on their core activities and not seriously encroach on each other's markets. Golden Harvest did, however,  benefit from the stars whom were being created by the now popular TVB studio. Future big screen names such as Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung, Stephen Chow, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and many others, all began their careers with TVB, which ultimately created a Hong Kong talent pool from which Golden Harvest selected the best.   

Tsui Hark
The boom in Cantonese language film production of the late 1980s, early 90s saw Golden Harvest become one of the biggest and most profitable film companies in the world.The company continued to produce genre films, but was now also attracting many of Hong Kong's New Wave film-makers from the early 1980s, with offers of production facilities and exhibition outlets. Directors like Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, 1986) and his company Film Workshop were now able to make popular, big budget movies like theOnce Upon a Time in Chinamartial-arts series (1991-97), and superb historical dramas and fantasy features such as The Lovers(1994) andWicked City(1992). 

Ann Hui
In 1990, acclaimed Canto film-maker Ann Hui directed Song of the Exile, about an estranged Japanese mother (Liu Hsiao-Fen) and her Chinese daughter (Maggie Cheung). This Golden Harvest release was a huge hit in Hong Kong and with overseas Chinatown audiences.

Mabel Cheung
Raymond Chow also backed difficult projects and a co-production with China, The Soong Sisters (1997) was one of the toughest. Chow supported director Mabel Cheung as she battled with Beijing's censors who wanted heavy cutting for a mainland release. Well over budget and more than a year late, the movie was finally shown in Hong Kong (I don't think it ever received a mainland China screening), where it garnered good box-office, enthusiastic reviews and later a slew of Hong Kong Film Awards. The Soong Sisters is a visually stunning motion picture with a memorable, ensemble performance from a trio of Asia's best known actresses,  Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Vivian Wu. 

The Soong Sisters
The international profile of Golden Harvest during the 90s was mostly due to one person: Jackie Chan. Golden Harvest pushed Chan's films to as many overseas markets as they could. It was finally in 1995 with Chan's urban action-adventure pic Rumble in the Bronx, (which was nearly all filmed in Vancouver), that the elusive North American market was conquered. With this belated breakthrough, Chow and Chan had the benefit of not having to put their commercial interests or careers in the hands of Hollywood's overlords. They knew by now what to do and what not to do.