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.

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