Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen

Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

I really wanted to like martial artist and film-maker Robin Shou's tribute to Hong Kong stunt performers and the Peking/Beijing Opera tradition in which many of its most famous practitioners received their training. (Traditionally the Opera student wears red trousers, hence the title.) Shou comes across as affable and his aim is a laudable one, as is Tai Seng's willingness to bring out something different.

Moreover, like any film pseudo-intellectual, I have a soft spot for films about film that allow me to drop in casual references to "self-reflexivity", "alienation effects", "mise-en-abyme narratives" and their pretentious likes.

What emerges here, however, is that these concepts and the (western) thinking behind them are fundamentally irrelevant as far as Shou's "twin dragons" are concerned.

It is not that Hong Kong action cinema and the Opera are unapproachable in formalist terms: A consideration of, say, the way in which a Jackie Chan stunt/attraction will often be replayed multiple times from multiple perspectives and the "laying bare the device" of his outtakes reels, or of the extreme stylisation of the Opera, reveals what could be taken as a strong affinity with anti-realist/anti-illusionist aesthetics.

But the thing is that such formalist/realist arguments feel fundamentally irrelevant here, overly theoretical and alien impositions.

Instead, the thing that matters - and the thing that many western filmmakers could really learn from their eastern counterparts, if I can continue to be excused defining two idealised opposites - is whether or not the work entertains.

Here, unfortunately, is where Chou's film largely falls flat on its behind, its gimmicky construction as an intermingling of documentary and fiction coming to resemble nothing so much as a stunt that went wrong - enjoyable only in a perverse way.

Instead of a solidly entertaining 100 minutes of one or the other we get an unsatisfactory half measure of both, less than the sum of its parts and in no ways a synthesis of opposites. (I know, I know, we're starting to sound more and more like those French situationists who reworked Crush Karate as Can Dialectics Break Bricks back in the 1970s...)

Of the two sides, the documentary emerges victorious: It's interesting to see how the Opera has now been reinstated as a vital part of Chinese cultural tradition after years of offical indifference and hostility. The contributions from luminaries such as Lau Kar Leung, reminiscing on how primitive Hong Kong filmmaking was in the 1950s when he started, and Samo Hung, recalling with a mixture of fondness and horror the brutality of his Opera training - legalised child abuse is an accurate label for it - are likewise very welcome, as are the rare clips from old black and white wuxia pian.

But - and it's a but of J-Lo importance - there's one thing missing: How can you talk about Opera and Hong Kong action cinema without featuring Jackie Chan?

Yes, Leung can take credit for bringing real-life martial arts techniques to the screen, raising the standard and creating a space in which Opera trainees could flourish. Yes, Samo Hung is arguably a greater innovator than his old colleague. But Chan is surely the name in terms of the broader audience - especially the western one this film seeks to reach.

These problems, however, pale into insignificance when we come to the film within the film. It just doesn't work. Set in a contemporary world that seems more indebted to Hollywood-style films like The Matrix and Blade - Shou's main claim to fame is, not coincidentally, starring as Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat films of the videogames - the constant cutting back-and-forth to the documentary and, especially, behind-the-scenes/making-of material prevents the viewer from getting into the story or caring about the characters.

Again the defence might say the film is thereby a successful application of alienation effects, but again this isn't the prosecution has to say that this isn't intent: Shou wants to enhance our pleasure in watching this cinema by making us appreciate where it comes from and how it works, not destroy this pleasure via (over-)analysis.

On several occasions, however, that is precisely what happens, as when we cannot but reflect upon the physical difference between Beatrice Chia, playing Shou's co-combatant and romantic interest in the film within the film, and her stunt double, wondering exactly why Shou cast an actress who cannot fight in the role in the first place. (Oh, okay, it's that she's a hottie and your typical stunt performer isn't - unless you're into broken noses and scars.)

Throughout, I found myself recalling other films and, more importantly, how they managed to meet the needs Red Trousers tries to, only more successfully:

If I want to see a showcase for stuntwork then I'll go watch one of Jackie Chan's Police Story series or his biopic/greatest hits compilation My Story, My Stunts. (Ah, perhaps that's why Chan's absent here...)

If I want to learn about the Opera tradition and its own Shaolin martial arts influences - largely unexamined here - and their impact on Chinese action cinema then I'd go for The Art of Action documentary, hosted by the no less than Samuel L Jackson.

And, if I wanted to see and know more about the Opera then I'd either seek out the real thing via a touring performance - not so rare, now that the form has been rehabilitated by the Chinese government - or watch a film like Alex Law's Painted Faces, a dramatisation of the rigorous, brutal training received by Chan, Hung and the rest of the Seven Little Fortunes, with Hung actually playing his old sifu.

Each time it's Red Trousers that comes up short.

Sorry, Robin, I know what you were trying to do and I applaud you for doing it, but I just didn't think it worked.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2005
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Tribute to Hong Kong stunt performers and the Peking/Beijing Opera tradition

Director: Robin Shou

Starring: Robin Shou, Beatrice Chia, Keith Cooke, Hakim Alston, Craig Reid

Year: 2003

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong, USA


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