Shaw the Malay film industry pioneer

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 9, 2014

Even as the late Sir Run Run Shaw is being hailed by movie lovers for his lasting legacy to Chinese cinema, there is a less well-known contribution the film-and-TV mogul should be remembered for - his impact on the Malay film industry.

As prominent Singaporean lyricist and film researcher Yusnor Ef, 76, says: "Without Run Run Shaw, there would not be a Malay film industry here today.

"If it were not for him, we would not be able to even dream about having a Malay film industry now."

The legendary Mr Shaw, who had built an entertainment empire through the Shaw studio and later broadcaster TVB over an eight-decade career, died on Tuesday morning. He was 106.

In 1947, he set up Malay Film Productions, a studio that would go on to produce more than 150 Malay films during the post-war period.

Most prominent were the films featuring legendary actor-director P.Ramlee, who starred in 42 films and directed 16, all done at the studio located at No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

Yusnor says: "Even today, tourists from Malaysia will go to the location and take pictures of it. Even though the studio no longer exists, the building is there and they want to see for themselves the birthplace of all these wonderful films."

Local film-maker Abdul Nizam Abdul Hamid, 47, says that Mr Shaw's biggest contribution to the Malay film industry was his faith and belief in the talents of Malay entertainment icon P. Ramlee.

"He agreed to let P. Ramlee direct his first movie, Penarik Beca, in 1955 because he could see that Ramlee was more than just an actor and singer. They became quite close, Run Run would take him along to film festivals overseas and he would pretty much approve whatever projects Ramlee wanted to work on."

Some of the most beloved P. Ramlee films include Huah Tuah (1956), Musang Berjanggut (The Bearded Fox, 1959) and Madu Tiga (The Three Wives, 1964). To this day, the actor is widely considered an icon of Malay arts and entertainment.

Yusnor says: "Run Run Shaw and his brother Runme had already been doing a lot with Chinese films, producing and distributing them.

"Then, they started with Malay films because they saw potential in Malay films. Run Run Shaw saw the potential."

Malay Film Productions shut down in 1967 as Kuala Lumpur became the new Malay film hub after Shaw Organisation set up Merdeka Film Productions studio there.

P.Ramlee also relocated there and made several more films with the studio in Kuala Lumpur before it closed shop in 1977.

Recalling the old days, Yusnor says that he still considers the movies produced during that era to be the best in Malay cinema.

"Today, a lot of Malay films rely on technology and there is a lot of 'boom' here and 'boom' there. But the Shaw Brothers' Malay films were done with real heart."

Still, it is probably the classic wuxia films that are synonymous with the Shaw name. During the 1960s, the Shaw studio made more than 40 titles a year and popularised the gongfu genre in the West with movies such as Five Fingers Of Death (1972) and The One-armed Swordsman (1967), which turned Wang Yu into a superstar.

Veteran getai performer Wang Lei, 52, estimates that he had watched "nine out of 10" Shaw Brothers' wuxia films.

Rattling off a string of titles including Five Shaolin Masters (1974) and Come Drink With Me (1966), he recalls fondly: "Every time the iconic Shaw Brothers' logo and theme music came on before the movie commenced, I would grab my siblings' hands in excitement because I knew that it'd be something good.

"These movies were talked about by audiences in the West as well. It was Run Run Shaw who made international audiences sit up and notice Chinese films. He was a great, great man."

Of course, Mr Shaw's impact goes well beyond film production. He also opened theatres around town as well as amusement parks such as Kim Seng Road's Great World.

Home-grown film-maker Kelvin Tong, 40, who made a movie about the Great World Amusement Park in his nostalgic film It's A Great Great World (2011), says of the now-defunct place: "A lot of stories, memories, experiences and romances happened there. Thus, it was a great setting for a Singapore film.

"In many ways, my tribute to the Great World Amusement Park is also a valentine to the Shaws' foresight in building an amusement park to which everybody from millionaires to trishaw cyclists flocked."

Veteran actor Chen Shucheng, 64, recalls with a chuckle how he used to skip school so that he could go to the Sky Theatre at Great World to catch a film.

"My friends and I would cycle there together secretly and watch Shaw Brothers' movies. We couldn't take a bus because we wanted to save money to buy a drink later on.

"But the bad thing was that because we were sweating so much from the cycling and then sitting in freezing air- conditioning during the movie, I ended up falling very sick one time. That was when my father discovered I was playing truant. I reformed after that. You could say that the Shaw Brothers also helped to make me a better person," he says with a laugh.

Tong adds that Mr Shaw's legacy is also the fact that he has influenced moviegoers' taste in film to this day.

He says: "His earliest instinct for ghost movies, musicals and gongfu flicks can be deeply felt in present-day mainstream Singaporean, Hong Kong and Malaysian cinema.

"This, I think, is his most enduring legacy - his Midas touch informing audience's taste in cinema even today."

Additional reporting by Eddino Abdul Hadi

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 9, 2014

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