Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Mona’s Auteurs: A Brief History of the Women of Shaw Brothers

August 21 2019

Shaw Brothers, founded in 1958 by Sir Run Run Shaw (and his brothers, who had been running Chinese film studios since 1925), kept its Clearwater Bay soundstages grinding day and night for decades, sending thousands of feet of film across their editing tables 24 hours a day, minting stars from their stable of actors, and assigning scripts to their stable of directors. They were the biggest game in town, but in the early Eighties they couldn’t figure out how to compete with television. Enter Mona Fong.

There had been a handful of female directors in Hong Kong before the Eighties, but as Mabel Cheung (The Illegal Immigrant) put it, directors were mostly “macho men smoking cigars with their chair boy running around the set after them.” But Hong Kong’s biggest studio was practically run by a woman, and when it lost its way in the early Eighties, Fong tapped a handful of female directors who delivered some of the city’s most powerfully political films that arrive in this retrospective at the exact moment Hong Kong needs them the most.

Fong was a nightclub singer who caught the eye of Run Run Shaw and became his mistress, then the studio’s head of production, and ultimately Shaw’s wife. By the early Eighties, she was one of the most powerful, and hated (because the two often go hand-in-hand), women in show business. Determined to put the aimless studio back on track, Fong hired new blood and told them to take risks.

First up: Ann Hui, known for her socially engaged television series, one of which caused a police riot, and scrappy independent productions which were making big money at the box office. Fong signed her to a contract, gave her access to Shaw’s world-class production facilities and bigger budgets, and Hui delivered Love in a Fallen City.

Based on a novella by Eileen Chang, the Chinese literary progeny of Edith Wharton and Henry James, it cast a wildly popular pair of on-screen lovers, Cora Miao and Chow Yun-fat, as a couple caught up in the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Taking place on the exact same morning as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion of Hong Kong was equally unexpected and just as devastating. But until the Japanese Army T-bones into the plot of Love in a Fallen City, the movie is a Merchant Ivory romance so discreet and elliptical that the first meeting between its main characters takes place offscreen.

Japan’s invasion shatters the movie’s polite dinner parties with shrapnel and shreds etiquette with machine gun bullets as the Great Powers go to war with Hong Kong trapped in the middle. Shot in 1984, as Britain sold out Hong Kong to China with the Joint Declaration promising to return the territory in 1997, it also reflects the whiplash Hong Kongers felt as their colonizers abandoned them to Communist China. But Hui keeps her film from becoming a political pamphlet as Miao and Chow realize that living in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong has brought them together better than any matchmaker.

Aphrodisiac adversity crops up again in Hui’s only other movie for Shaw, Starry is the Night. Brigitte Lin, one of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s greatest movie stars, plays a 39-year-old social worker having an affair with her 18-year-old client, and the movie’s timeline alternates between the politically charged present year of 1987, and 1967, when Lin’s character, a university student, has an affair with her much older professor.

In 1967, Hong Kong erupted into riots, strikes, and violent police actions that set the city on fire. Clashes between anti-colonial leftists, secretly backed by Mainland China, and right-wing anti-communists, backed by the British police, turned Hong Kong into a war zone. Hui’s movie paints a portrait of hypocrites gone wild. Lin’s older lover pretentiously praises the French Revolution, but when he encounters an actual demonstration, he hides his face so it won’t get caught on camera. He and Lin are so wrapped up in their doomed romance that they regard the actual revolution unfolding around them as an inconvenience to their schedules, until a street bombing momentarily reignites their passions. Ultimately, the professor is as cowardly in the sheets as he is in the streets, whining that he can’t leave his wife, then smacking Lin in the face when she calls him out on his soggy spine.

Lin’s present day affair occurs in 1987-88, the year of Hong Kong’s first direct elections for district council. When she refuses to dump her boytoy to make her bosses happy (one of whom is a Catholic priest, played by director John Woo in a surprise cameo) she’s told that she’s selfish, and “has no right to speak,” echoing the patronizing tone of Mainland China whenever Hong Kong demanded an expansion of its rights.

Like Greta Garbo in her Hollywood melodramas, Lin spends the movie losing. In 1967, she loses her lover and her baby, and in 1987, the unsexy local politician she works for loses his election campaign. Under pressure from Mainland China, Hong Kong never had direct elections again. But faced with personal and political defeat, Lin’s social worker doesn’t give up. Instead she decides to keep fighting because, after all, what else can you do?

Mabel Cheung’s Illegal Immigrant (1985) is more timely for Americans. Cheung was an NYU film student alongside her artistic co-conspirator and life partner, Alex Law. The two lived in Chinatown, surviving on egg sandwiches and working in a Chinese video store where Law duplicated tapes and Cheung ran the front desk. When Mona Fong visited NYU she told the two students to contact her if they ever needed anything. Together, they wrote a script for Cheung’s thesis film and sent it to Fong, who put up the entire HK$1 million budget.

Featuring a cast crammed with their friends, many of whom would never act again, and shot in downtown New York, Immigrant is a lumpy, ungainly green-card romance between a sweatshop worker and the woman he hires to be his “wife,” who needs the cash for her plastic surgery. Cheung and Law wanted to tell the stories of the invisible people they saw all around them every day, and while the movie is sometimes ungainly, it’s a window into a vanished New York City, shot beautifully by Bobby Bukowski. It’s engaging and powerful enough to have won Cheung “Best Director” at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.

This was also the year that another Fong discovery, Angela Chan, delivered the best film in the Shaw Sisters series. After working with a Shaw director in Los Angeles, Chan wound up assistant directing an early Jackie Chan movie (Dragon Lord), and a thriller (He Lives By Night) before she cold called Mona Fong and pitched her an idea for a thriller over the phone. The next day she had a three-film contract.

The first of these movies is 1984’s very weird and rarely screened Maybe It’s Love. Scripted by Lilian Lee, one of Hong Kong’s great novelists and author of Farewell My Concubine, it depicts a tapestry of life in a New Territories village. It’s also a coming-of-age story that feels like an Amblin film with more BDSM, mashed up with a Rear Window-influenced murder mystery featuring a gang of children in the Jimmy Stewart role, continuously interrupted by aerobics workouts vigorously executed by starlette Cherie Chung, the entire movie lacquered in sweat, pink spandex, and neon Eighties compositions. Truly wild, the only thing it has in common with Chan’s next film is its cinematographer, Bob Huke.

Written as a response to the William Holden-Paramount Pictures production The World of Suzie Wong, which Chan saw when she was 12, My Name Ain’t Suzie is nothing short of a masterpiece, which makes the fact that it’s taken 34 years to be screened outside of Hong Kong both deeply depressing and extremely exciting. Retelling World’s tragic story of a sex worker in Wan Chai from the sex worker’s point-of-view, it becomes a testament to a woman’s force of will. Based on interviews with actual working girls, many of whom play background extras in the movie, it’s not the tawdry, gritty, slice-of-life movie you’d expect, but lush, big-budget entertainment that’s an example of the genius of the studio system.

Shot on elaborate soundstages and on location, taking place over three exquisitely costumed decades, and featuring a tasteful score spiked with Fifties rock n’roll, it’s a sumptuous movie that follows Shui-Mei (played by Pat Ha) from her impoverished childhood, to her life as a sex worker in post-War Hong Kong, to her striking out on her own in the Sixties, and finally bringing her to the Eighties, scarred, battered, but unbowed.

Ha was only 20 when Suzie was shot, but she draws you in with her Buster Keaton stone-face, seducing audiences with her intellect. Playing the juvenile delinquent who wins her heart is Anthony Wong in his first screen appearance. Wong would go on to become one of Hong Kong’s great actors but here he’s 24 years of pissed off prettyboy, strutting through bars, flashing the photo of his Western dad who abandoned him, and demanding to know if anyone can tell him where to find this asshole. It probably helped that Wong’s real life Western dad had abandoned him, too.

Rounding out the cast is Shaw Brothers bombshell Angela Yu, then on the downward slope of her career, playing Little Lin Yuk, a sex worker on the downward slope of her career. Bruce Lee’s real-life mistress, Betty Ting-pei, turns in a bizarre and touching performance as Aunt Monie, a procurer who trawls villages and lures pretty young things to the big bad city with fat cash and empty promises. Deanie Ip, one of Hong Kong’s weirdest actresses and pop stars, makes her screen debut as Sister Ying, the butch, suit-wearing, cigar-chomping gangster who comes to Pat Ha’s aid. She won Best Actress at the Hong Kong film awards for her performance as a gangster in love and over her head.

Full of self-induced abortions, gangster beatdowns, neon sizzle, barfights, and catfights, it’s a big, raucous entertainer that celebrates women who just won’t quit. Director Angela Chan did quit, however, after falling out with Mona Fong over her next movie, Chaos By Design (1988), she walked away from filmmaking and became a TV commercial director, instead.

As students, flight attendants, civil servants, and grandparents flood Hong Kong’s streets right now in protest, and are tear gassed, beaten, and blinded by the police and gangsters backed by Mainland China, they’re putting the spirit of these movies into action: never quit, never give up, never stop fighting, even if you know you’ll lose. It’s the spirit of Hong Kong, it’s the spirit of women in the great Hollywood melodramas, and it’s the spirit that runs through these movies and animates their directors like a bolt of lightning.