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)

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