Legendary film producer and television mogul Sir Run Run Shaw died in 2014 at the age of 106. In addition to being a multimedia mogul, he was a generous philanthropist, donating billions of Hong Kong dollars to universities and schools, establishing prizes in science and the arts.

He was responsible for a lot of the classic kung-fu movies. Those raised on a diet of modern Donnie Yen epics, with glorious cinematography, or big budget Hollywood style Jet Li movies or even the retro cool of Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon find these films either charming, or quite frankly crap.

The Wu Tang Clan were influenced by them - one founding member having little money growing up and therefore finding entertainment in a run down Chinese theater showing these movies for a dollar. Netflix has a shovelful as well, because they're pretty cheap to license. They are to martial arts movies what Tyler Perry is to the DVD section in Target. Mass marketed, produced by a small cabal of people, and turned out over and over again to a formula. There's a certain charm in them: seeing the "Shaw Brothers" logo at the beginning of the film (a crude copy of the Warner Brothers logo) and reading that the movie was filmed in "Shawscope" means that you're in for some predictable fun with predictable faces therein.

The sets are clearly sets, the movies are dubbed, even in Chinese because of the ambient noise of Hong Kong making live sound recording impossible. People are clearly falling out of a tree with the film reversed, as opposed to being able to leap two stories. The fight scenes have a predictable, 4/4 rhythm that Bruce Lee became a legend for abandoning. It's obviously so that the actors can execute moves in tandem, but it looks rather stilted, albeit still rather complex.

Listen, any media has some kind of convention. Comics convey information with elements that we easily recognize. A cloud indicates anger, but coupled with curved lines means moving air. Curved lines indicate a path of travel. People who are nervous sweat to the point where drops of liquid fly off their bodies (I'm looking at you, Cathy Guisewite!). The Japanese take that further with manga - a nosebleed signifies sexual arousal, a symbol reminiscent of the Luftwaffe or an octothorpe is supposed to be a bulging vein indicating severe anger, and a snot bubble coming out of the nose signifies someone is asleep.

And if you listen carefully to Shaw brothers movies, there's a clear set of sounds to convey some kind of information during a fight. They use the same sound every time, as opposed to foley or at least doing three or four "takes" and swapping them out. And this, as well, is not particular to Chinese movies - just about every Western movie involving a sword being drawn is accompanied by a "ssssssshing!" noise that doesn't happen in nature.

Anyhow, the noises communicate what's happening, in case you weren't able to track it visually.

  • Blunt object missing - This is a low pitched "whoosh"ing noise. Either a fist, kick or some kind of pole. When you hear that, it's a blunt object missing its target.
  • Blunt object striking blunt object - The sound of two poles colliding, it's a "knock" sound.
  • Fist blocked by opponent - This is a short "chock" kind of sound that at first suggests a blow has been struck - but when you see a fist connecting, you realize it just suggests the meeting of two parts of human anatomy with no damage being caused.
  • Blunt object striking - This is similar to "punch" sounds in Western movies - a high, wet splash noise probably done by augmenting the sound of someone punching a slab of meat.
  • Sharp object missing - Whether a sword, pole arm or some other slashing weapon, when it misses it makes a high pitched "whooshing" noise.
  • Sharp object striking sharp object - You can't block an edged weapon with human anatomy - the idea of iron shirt or toad style being missing from these films, usually (exception: Five Deadly Venoms). So when a sword blocks a pole arm, it makes a high pitched "shing!" similar to keys being rattled.
  • Sharp object striking person - Similar to the blunt object strike, though it's lower pitched, and "wetter". The pitch difference tells you what actually hit.

Though it kind of sounds like a youngster playing with a sound board or some key chain noise maker, it actually conveys useful and interesting information. Especially when swords are being swung (whatever can be mocked out is - the spears are clearly silver painted wood, but swords tend to be metal) or someone's swinging a blunt object heavier than a bamboo pole, the scene is "cheated" so that a miss actually looks like a hit. There's a fine art to martial arts filmmaking - I read once in Black Belt magazine about a guy deciding to actually fight another guy to get some realism in the shots - and though they were battering the hell out of each other, it looked less convincing than the way a really good choreographer like Bruce Lee could stage and cheat a scene. But again, because you could have multiple combatants in front of a solitary camera, and there's a host of fast, intricate moves seen from an angle, it's not always clear what just happened. But with the sonic shorthand, even without the picture you can follow the "plot" of the fighting.

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