Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen
2003, R, 93 min. Directed by Robin Shou.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 2, 2004
If you’ve seen any of the Mortal Kombat series, then you’re already familiar with Robin Shou – his Liu Kang is the 12-pack-abbed wallop machine with the hunky black locks and a penchant for inscrutable wordplay. That video game-inspired franchise is only a small part of his acting work, however; the Hong Kong-born actor has more than two dozen HK actioners to his credit and a lifelong fondness for the grueling lives of the phenomenally resilient stuntmen who continue to make the genre the mind-and-body warping miracle that it is. Shou’s film is a double-layered documentary that examines both the creation of a stereotypical HK action film and the impossible feats of the Asian stuntman industry. And therein lies the problem: Instead of tackling the whole stunt issue head-on, Shou uses his first directorial effort, Lost Time: The Movie (2001), as a definition-by-example that too frequently draws the viewer out of the far more fascinating historical context and into what appears to be a low-rent, uninspired HK B-movie. It’s hard to tell, however, how worthwhile Lost Time actually is since we tend to see only small portions of it before Shou pulls the camera back to reveal the clockwork precision of its action sequences. At times, Shou’s Red Trousers feels as if it were a "making of" puff piece, with assorted notable interviews tossed in for good measure. The film includes a fair amount of valuable and fascinating footage of the Tai Yuen Opera Group, a thespian boot-camp academy that hearkens back to early days of the HK film industry when future stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were placed at the Peking Opera School by their parents at roughly the same age Western kids were learning their ABCs. Wearing the signature red trousers of the title, Chan, Hung, Yuen Biao, and others mastered a style of acrobatic maneuvers that would put the Olympic committee to shame; of course, it was also a punishing form of indentured servitude, with students as young as 6 forced to hone their young bodies into astonishingly agile whipcords and perform before the assembled throngs before being sent out into the world to earn their keep. Where Red Trousers succeeds is in its exploration of the inherent fearlessness of the HK stuntmen. In one jaw-dropping real-life sequence, we see stuntman Wang Hua perform a wire-harness gag three stories over a gulch needled with uninvitingly pointy rocks. When his wire accidentally snaps, Wang plunges to the ground, breaking his leg and battering his face, all for $25 a day. The misfire caused him to be out of work for two years, but Wang’s reaction sums up the HK stuntman’s credo better than any documentary could: He tosses off the work-related injury as easily as an accountant with a paper cut. The point of Red Trousers seems to be that the HK stuntman is a breed apart, unafraid and even eager to court physical calamity in the service of his art. Well, yes. But as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of HK filmmaking already knows, that’s always been the whole point.