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A Hong Kong Film Titan, With A Reach Well Beyond His Roots

Run Run Shaw, pictured with his wife and daughter in London, was knighted in 1978 for his philanthropic endeavors.
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Run Run Shaw, pictured with his wife and daughter in London, was knighted in 1978 for his philanthropic endeavors.

The Hong Kong entertainment magnate and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, who died today at 106 or 107, isn't that well known in the West. But his fans, from Quentin Tarantino to the Wu-Tang Clan, sure are.

Shaw was the producer of many a classic of the wuxia, or martial-arts, genre: Come Drink with Me, The One-Armed Swordsman and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon surprised Western viewers in 2000, but Asian filmgoers had seen it all before, in movies directed by King Hu and produced by Shaw.

Shaw also invested in some Western movies, notably 1982's Blade Runner, in which director Ridley Scott offered a vision of Asianized future.

The entrepreneur's Shaw Brothers Studio declined in the 1970s, after he guessed wrong on the commercial prospects of a guy named Bruce Lee. But by then he had already founded Television Broadcasts Limited, a successful company he ran until 2011. It launched the careers of many performers who became movie stars, including Chow Yun-fat, Maggie Cheung, Stephen Chow and Leslie Cheung.

Like many of Hong Kong's leading cinematic figures, Shaw was born in mainland China. (The date was in 1906 or 1907, confusion engendered by differences between Chinese and Western calendars of the time.) Then known as Shao Ren Leng, he entered the movie distribution business in Singapore in 1927, when he was 19, working for one of his older brothers.

The family had started making movies in 1924 — Run Run Shaw directed one, Country Bumpkin Visits his In-Laws, in 1937 — and moved the operation from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1936. After World War II, Shaw claimed, he restarted the company with $4 million in gold, jewelry and cash he and a brother had buried in their backyard.

When Shaw Movietown opened in Hong Kong in 1961, it was the world's largest privately owned film production facility. At Shaw Brothers' 1974 peak, it made 50 movies annually.

Over the years, Shaw donated billions to arts, education and medicine, and endowed the Shaw Prize, an Asian counterpart to the Nobels. Generous as it was, though, his philanthropy may never eclipse such landmark cinematic moments as the multi-level teahouse brawl in Come Drink with Me.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for reeldc.com, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.

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