Saturday, April 24, 2004

Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run; calendar schedule)

Even those who are not fans of martial arts movies would probably acknowledge that there's an interesting movie to be made from the stories of the Hong Kong stuntmen, or the Chinese opera training that produced many of them and gives this film its name (and may already have been, since Painted Faces seems to have generally good reviews). Many of these stuntmen (and actors, and directors) have been trained since they were very small children, did highly dangerous work for very little pay, and do it in part because the brutal authenticity is part of what set Hong Kong's action movies apart from their more expensive, slicker American counterparts. Unfortunately, Robin Shou is not the man to make this movie.

Shou is indentified as an "Actor/Director" when he appears, but that is something of a cheat, since this is his directorial debut, if you don't count the movie's film-within-the-film, "Lost Time" (we'll get to that later). He's really got no sense of how to put a movie together to form a cohesive narrative, is not a very good interviewer, and as part of the industry he's documenting, he can't look at it objectively or clearly. It's almost as if he decided, halfway through making Lost Time, that his action movie wasn't nearly as interesting as the people working on it and turned the cameras in the other direction. But, in doing so, he didn't want to alienate any of the people he was working with and had to try and produce a feature documentary on the budget for a DVD extra.

Consider, for instance, Ridley Tsui, the movie's stunt director. The impression is occasionally given that Mr. Tsui is a harsh taskmaster, abrasive, and possessed of other traits that do not endear one's boss to a person. He is apparently good at what he does, but there's the sense that the respectful way in which the stuntpeople talk about him are not, shall we say, representative of their entire opinion. To be fair, this may not be Shou's falt; the American-educated director does try to elicit a stronger opinion, but he seems to be up against a strong cultural imperative to not cause one's superiors to lose face.

There is also the matter of the Hong Kong film industry as a whole. In interview footage, director/actor/stuntman Sammo Hung (a personal favorite of mine) off-handedly mentions that the HK film industry is in a bad place, and that it was once the best in Asia and one of the best in the world. Similarly, students at a performaing arts school in the end speak worriedly about their futures. It seems like an obvious angle for a documentary on Hong Kong stuntmen to take - that between runaway production, the return to Chinese rule, and many of HK's top action filmmakers going to America, there is less work for these people. But this is avoided.

Similarly, the name "Red Trousers" comes from the traditional dress of students at the Peking Opera School, which produced such action stars as Jackie Chan, Yeun Biao, Sammo Hung, and Tony Leung. But that tradition, which goes back to the eighteenth century, is given short shrift, with only Sammo appearing in interview footage and some archive footage (including one shot of an astoundingly slim young Sammo). It reappears toward the end in one of the movie's best sequences, where we see young kids training in martial arts at a newer academy - featuring, I imagine, much less corporal punishment - and some of their teenaged students talk about their hopes. A really good movie might have closed on that, showing it as a continuing tradition, though one that's in danger.

Unfortunately, Red Trousers still has more "Lost Time" to subject us to. This movie-in-a-movie, intended as a way to show us these stuntmen in action, is awful. The acting is terrible, and as a director, Shou tends toward the Hollywood method, showing us a lot of close-ups of fists colliding that we'd know were doubled even if we hadn't seen, for example, that his leading lady looks nothing like her stuntwoman. These segments go on far too long, showing us a lot of Robin Shou but also taking up valuable time that could be spent on learning about the Hong Kong stuntmen - which is what we paid for.

It's so disappointing; it's not like the intercut movie is a bad idea (Standing In The Shadows Of Motown used it to brilliant effect); but the execution is so bad that I can't bring myself to recommend Red Trousers.

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