And without Hollywood Theatre programmer Dan Halsted, much of Shaw’s legacy would reside in a Canadian landfill.
When Run Run Shaw died this month at the tender young age of 106, he left behind more than 300 films from the golden era of Hong Kong cinema. For decades, the iconic head of the Shaw Brothers Studio oversaw what was essentially the MGM of Hong Kong. He worked on everything from kung fu to Chinese mysticism, from two-fisted shoot-’em-ups to psychedelic freakouts, from horror to drama.
For American audiences, though, much of it was the stuff of legend. Sure, you could listen to Quentin Tarantino spout off about the Shaw brothers whenever he emulated their signature blood sprays, but the majority of their studio’s films are kept in the Hong Kong Film Archive, not allowed to leave the premises. Many other prints were destroyed long ago.
Which makes it even more incredible that Halsted, a grindhouse and kung fu fanatic, managed to come into possession of the largest private collection of Shaw Brothers films all because of a hunch. In 2009, he purchased a film canister containing a remarkably well-preserved Shaw trailer and a ticket stub marked “Shaw Theater” in Vancouver, B.C. After months of research, Halsted finally got in touch with Shaw’s niece, who was living abroad but still owned the abandoned theater on Vancouver’s skid row (the Shaws had theaters in Chinatowns all over North America). She sent Halsted a key, and he made his way north, where, strewn about beneath the theater’s stage, he found more than 200 original Shaw Brothers films.
Halsted set about repairing and organizing the films—and then he donated all but about a dozen to the Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin cinema that runs its own archives and lends films to other theaters. By making that move—something most film collectors would never dream of doing—Halsted single-handedly preserved Shaw’s legacy in the West, ensuring that original prints of films like Invincible Pole Fighter, Dirty Ho and Boxer’s Omen could be seen by a new generation of geeks.
“It just amazes me that it happened,” says Halsted. “Once it was over, I was like, ‘What the fuck? That happened?’ It was like a dream.”
A dream indeed. Without Shaw, it’s arguable that John Woo’s work would never have come to fruition (he got his start in the Shaw system). Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that pay homage to the studio’s mystical wuxia films may never have made it into the mainstream. Kill Bill, The Matrix, House of Flying Daggers, Ashes of Time and other cult darlings would be rudderless.
And today, thanks to a local film nerd with a hunch, American audiences can return to the 36th Chamber over and over again.
The Hollywood Theatre celebrates Run Run Shaw with a triple feature that includes King Kong knockoff Mighty Peking Man, plus two mystery films featuring wizard fights and kung fu. 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 1. Additional Shaw Brothers screenings are planned.
- The Hollywood launches its new Cinescopio series with Santo vs. the Mummies of Guanajuato. Santo is a luchador. The mummies are mummies. This is going to be amazing. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm Thursday, Jan. 16.
- The original Police Academy isn’t a great film, but it’s fucking Citizen Kane compared to Mission to Moscow. Laurelhurst Theater. Jan. 17-23.
- In Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog plays with penguins. That nothing horrible happens to them is a small miracle. 5th Avenue Cinema. Jan 17-19.
- Because you can never be too fucked up when watching Terry Gilliam’s amazing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, check out this Beer Matinee, where your trip includes seven beer pairings that hopefully don’t include adrenochrome. Hollywood Theatre. 4:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 18. $25.
- Think you know everything about dust? Well, did you know there’s a German documentary called Dust that begs to differ? If that’s your thing, your weekend is all set. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 4 pm Saturday, Jan. 18.
- Speaking of weird Euro docs about boring stuff, you can also catch Swedish film cycle Biographies of Objects, which explores paper, glass, printing presses and, um…sorry. I dozed off. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Sunday, Jan. 19.
- Celebrate Batman’s 75th anniversary with Gotham A Go Go, a screening of three extremely campy episodes of the Adam West TV series that we all secretly wish Christopher Nolan would remake. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 21.