Robin Shou's affectionate "Red Trousers — The Life of Hong Kong Stuntmen" is so engaging and illuminating that it is enjoyable even for those unfamiliar with one of cinema's most dynamic forms. For aficionados of the movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and the other legends, the documentary is a pure delight and a touching testament to the risk-taking, hard-working professionals whose daring stunt work has made the Hong Kong action cinema the most exciting in the world over the past quarter-century.
The film takes its title from the pants worn by young students of Chinese opera, which combines intricate acrobatics and martial arts with singing and acting. Although Shou, best-known as the star of "Mortal Kombat," visits such schools in China, he explains that they no longer exist in the extremely severe form in which Chan and Hung were literally indentured, beginning their days standing on their heads for 90 minutes and enduring regular beatings from their masters.
Hung discloses that at the time he hated his master but today admits he can still do all the moves he learned, even though "I've grown very fat!"
A fine film of several years back, "Painted Faces," dramatized the experiences of students such as Chan and Hung, unflinchingly depicting the harsh discipline yet lamenting the schools' decline as opera companies disappear because of changes in popular tastes.
Although Hong Kong stuntmen come from many walks of life, the foundation of their profession has been laid by Chinese opera company alums as demand for their skills increased with the popularity of martial arts movies. Like Chan and Hung and various others before him, the lean and solidly built Shou — Hong Kong-born but raised in California — rose from the ranks of stuntman to film star. He introduces an array of stuntmen, veterans and newcomers, all of whom take great pride in their craft and share with one another a warm camaraderie.
In clips we see some of their finest stunts — a standout features a stuntman jumping off an overpass and tumbling across the roofs of a series of moving vehicles on a highway far below.
In many instances these stunts are done with more emphasis on expertise than protection. The realism these men — and women — seek in their work is downright scary, but they approach it with the utmost concentration and precision. To enrich the experience of watching "Red Trousers," Shou devised a film-in-the-making within the film called "Lost Time," in which he appears as a martial artist who must defeat a group of assassins, "legends of the forest." Unfolding in fragmented form throughout the documentary, "Lost Time" is intercut with fascinating footage that shows how the stunts were accomplished.
There is at last an inescapable poignancy to "Red Trousers" as Hung acknowledges that the Hong Kong industry is at a low point. Even more touching are the intensely dedicated teenage Chinese opera students Shou interviews, all of whom are well aware that they are mastering an ancient, multifaceted performing art without any certainty that they will be able to support themselves. "Red Trousers" leaves the viewer with a sad sense that the great days not only of Chinese opera but also Hong Kong action movies may be over.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Martial arts action and violence but none of it excessive. Suitable family fare.
A Tai Seng Entertainment presentation. Writer-director Robin Shou. Action directors Tony Leung Siu Hung, Ridley Tsui Bo Wah, Andy Chan, Jack Wong. "Lost Time" screenplay by Dr. Craig Reed. Cinematographer Christopher Faloona. Editor Kris Jenkins. "Lost Time" score by Nathan Wang and Ezra Gould. "Lost Time" special visual effects Andrew Wong and Roger Ingurusson. "Lost Time" production designer Kwok Sie Keung. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; and the University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times