At least half of "Red Trousers" is a documentary about the fearless stuntmen who fuel Hong Kong's action-film industry. So why on earth are so many of them crying? Well, Hong Kong stuntman are a proud lot. The ones in this movie are grateful to have received the unwavering love and support of their mothers, fathers, and wives. The traditional Hong Kong stuntman also has his roots in the Peking Opera, leaving him sensitive and open to the option of a good bawl.
The Red Trousers were the Opera's young acrobats. (Someone in the movie calls them "indentured servants.") When action directors needed stuntmen, the Opera was where they turned. Red Trouser alumni include Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping.
The martial-arts star Robin Shou directed "Red Trousers" as a showcase of Hong Kong stunt craft and as a tribute to those who make it possible. It should be noted that he also wants to pay tribute to himself (and his fatless body). The film is a collection of interviews with action legends and current stunt artists interwoven with -- though "stapled to" is probably more like it -- scenes from a short martial-arts film and its making. The film is called "Lost Time," and it stars Shou as a future-tense warrior of love who must quit his band of assassins in order to assassinate them. His girlfriend is also his sidekick.
Shou's gambit is pretty bold. Once you've seen half the cast come this close to comas, contusions, and worse, can you dismiss "Lost Time" as merely a snoozy live-action video game with rotten dialogue ("Everyone that needs to die will die"), a limp script, and dubious photography? It's hard, but not impossible. It should be said that this sort of thing is a Shou specialty -- he was a star of the two "Mortal Kombat" movies. But what's impressive about him and characteristic of most of the guys the film talks to is that they have a boyish enthusiasm for their trade. (Shou is allegedly 43, but the man rarely looks a minute over 19.)
While it's hardly infectious enough to make the average person want to go tumbling off a footbridge and onto a speeding bus, "Red Trousers" fills you with a healthy respect for the men and women gladly risking their lives for your entertainment. The film itself works best with its into-the-camera reminiscences and on-the-set mishaps. Jack Wong, a former hairdresser, is such a perfectionist that three times we see him attempt the same spin down and around a pole, finishing with a crash to the ground. Ouch. This is a movie where you actually hear people say things like "I didn't know how to fall from a three-story building or get hit by a speeding car," then watch them do both.
Sammo Hung is featured in several interviews, and he -- and several others -- seems satisfied to point out how the American action industry is a lot less life-threatening, a lot more stratified, and far more reliant on corner-cutting. He's onto something. In Hong Kong action flicks, the human body is the ultimate special effect.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen
Directed by: Robin Shou
With: Shou, Beatrice Chia, Lau Kar Leung, JackWong, Jude Poyer, Wong Chi Man, Ridley Tsui, Sammo Hung
At: Kendall Square, through April 29
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: R (scenes of violence)
In English and Cantonese, with subtitles