Outside of the stars, directors, special effects and occasional controversial subject matter, there is little recognition for the many other aspects of movies that the camera might not catch or the tabloids don’t cover. Take stuntmen, for example. Can you name one? I know I can’t. Yet they’re an integral part to most productions today. You don’t want Julia Roberts breaking a nail would you? Or have Brad Pitt fall face first into a muddy puddle? Leave it to the faceless stuntman to take the fall while the others get the glory.
Robin Shou’s Red Trousers: The Life of Hong Kong Stuntmen pays tribute to one country’s stuntmen. At the same time it’s a personal tribute as Shou uses the film as a platform to showcase his own fictional work when instead he could have been going into more depth on many of the other areas of the industry he introduces.
Often when you see a stunt or action sequence you admire how cool it looks but don’t really think much about the person doing the stunt. It’s staged, of course, so why should it require any thought? But there’s more to stunts than staging them out and rolling the film. Red Trousers gets to the people behind the stunts, those who aren’t named Jackie Chan get little to no recognition.
Red Trousers is a curious title, but it doesn’t take long for the film to explain it. Just as film was starting to emerge, when stunt work was needed, calls went out to the Beijing Opera House to send young students. The school, a training hot spot for acrobatics, had uniforms that included red pants for the students – hence the name.
Through numerous interviews with stuntmen past and present, it’s repeated over and over the deep sense of honour and determination that goes with the profession. They explain how it’s more than just a job but rather a way of life. It’s the same sort of comments you hear all the time in surfing documentaries and while the phrase “way of life” has lost a lot of its meaning, it shows a deep sense of passion and enthusiasm these people have for what they do.
Inter-cut within the documentary is Shou’s short film Lost Time. Sure, it’s a showcase for the stunts that the film is showcasing but it also comes across as an act of self-indulgence on the part of director/star Shou. The documentary is meant to be an all-encompassing history that pays tribute to an industry. In turn, all of the individuals involved in the stunt process are paid tribute to. However, the short film is a showcase largely for one man. Shou stars, he directs and he does his own stunts. Lost Time is an appropriate title too as it wastes the documentary’s time. While I see the cuts occur to show how some of the stunts work, Lost Time is horrible and it needn’t be shown from start to finish. It makes for too much Shou and not enough of the history of stuntmen and the culture surrounding.
Red Trousers sheds light on a counter cultural way of life, showing what it’s like to bounce off of buildings and take constant punches to all parts of one’s body. There’s anecdotes a plenty, many of which are brought to life by corresponding video footage. But Red Trousers is ultimately distracted by the lack of distance Shou brings to the film. While an expert on the subject, and a proud one at that, he puts too much of himself in all aspects of Red Trousers. Had he kept out Lost Time, things might have been different, but the fact is that it is there and it brings down everything around it as a result.