The Great Star Theatre

From Yelp:

“Great Star Theater is where i spent a time watching shaw brothers movies.
and whatever else they were showing. (action, drama, adventures, love stories, …looking back shaw movies were so inane but they were the only films around in chitown.

i saw my first kung fu movies here. wang yu’s style was the rave then. there are similiarities  to jackie chan’s kung fu. both looks more than street brawling than kung fu fighting.

the first genuine kung fu movie “The Boxer From Shantung” was shown here. soon after, golden harvest signed bruce lee to a movie contract and produced “The Big Boss”.. .

the rest is kung fu history.”

-(User) Victor G.

“Sipping melon soy and watching Hong Kong epics… priceless.”

-(User) Sketch F.


The Great Star Theater smells like history. It’s the most you’ll ever love a theater that literally hurts to spend two hours inside. I’m referring here to the seats, their metal inner-workings not nearly mysterious enough.

But in a neighborhood so saturated with tourism and offensively knick-knacky souvenir commerce, the Great Star is also golden. It’s a blast of the authentic.

Contemporary with, and possibly predating, the Castro’s gilded monument to the cinema, the Great Star has sat precisely at the heart of Chinatown since very nearly before there was a Chinatown. You can still find, in Yelp reviews, the painful nostalgia with which locals regard this now barely running movie house. It was once an institution, serving up that old standby: kung fu.

The SF Chronicle assures us (or did in 2010) that the theater has undergone major restoration efforts—but it needs more love. Hopefully the community can rally, and we can get this theatre more densely programmed. As it stands, it sounds like screenings are on and off, augmented by some (welcome) Cantonese opera fare. (As it stands, a schedule for the theater’s events can’t be found online—not a good sign.)

Granted, it’s not the best time to be trying open theaters in San Francisco (or anywhere) as many this year have announced their closing after decades of adventurous programming (The Bridge, The Lumiere) and still others are engaged in a fierce battle to remain open (The Roxie.)

But there’s also, surely, an untapped audience still densely populating the surrounding Chinatown. It’s easy for an outsider to forget but, aside from being a tourist destination, Chinatown is still a thriving community for Chinese Americans. Who’s to say they wouldn’t be thrilled to see some Chinese Cinema on the big screen? I’m happy to join.

I had the fortune to see a film at the Great Star on a painfully beautiful rainy day in Chinatown. The folks from Art House Revival and CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) were friendly and visibly happy to be putting the space to use. The film was Stolen Life by Shaohong Li. You can stream it on Netflix, and I’m told by CAAM that a large number of DVD copies have been donated to the Chinatown branch of the SF Public Library.

About Stolen Life I can’t say much. It’s an interesting entry with context, but kind of a harrowing trudge of a film, and not in a productive way. I won’t recommend it, but it does faithfully document a long series of terrible choices with admirable empathy (as a viewer, I couldn’t match that empathy.) Li Shaohong does have Fifth Generation street cred though.

Let’s get the Great Star back up and running. It has too much potential.

-Max Berwald


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