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In the bruising new documentary Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen, such suicidal derring-do is not only commonplace, it's expected. Stuntman Robin Shou's valentine to his mentors and peers in the business extols the virtue of men (and some women, like the engaging Ada Leung) eager to tattoo each other's faces with karate kicks, swing battle-axes, sledgehammers and eight-foot lengths of pipe with killer gusto, and, if need be, ride motorcycles over the edges of cliffs. All in a day's work, and all part and parcel of a warrior code that may someday provide a shot at a better life.
The American movie industry has its share of brave, half-crazed stuntmen, too. But their underpaid, unsung Hong Kong counterparts obviously don't have much respect for them. "In Hollywood," Shou tells us, "they take ten-foot dives onto air bags." Ask for a pad or an air bag while shooting a no-holds-barred Hong Kong action film, and you'll never work in that town again. The softest thing Jackie Chan ever landed on in the early years was a row of planks; Sammo Hung, another respected pioneer of the art, used to shrug off cracked ribs and broken collarbones like lesser men wave away mosquitoes.
Where did this militant lunacy come from? What fuels the extraordinary pride of the Hong Kong stuntmen? It's more complicated than we might imagine. Producer-director Shou, who's now 44 and made his bones in Hong Kong before going to college in California and crossing over to the U.S. action-movie trade (he's the star and choreographer of the Mortal Kombat series), explains that the first and purest generation of Hong Kong stuntmen was trained at the legendary Beijing Opera School (where the standard work costume was a pair of flowing red trousers). Indentured students from poor families whose masters beat them mercilessly with canes, these children had the high art of Chinese theatrical fighting literally drummed into them. They graduated as highly skilled swordsmen, dancers, fighters and actors, and, as some of them were absorbed into the fast-growing Hong Kong film industry in the 1970s, set the standard for all stunt performers to follow.
Some of these local heroes are still working in film, and their wide-ranging gifts are regarded by succeeding generations with respect and awe. Says Shou: "After Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung kicks your ass, he'll sing to you about it."
Red Trousers hasn't got the most coherent dramatic structure (an action movie within the movie is distracting), and it leaves some interesting questions unanswered. Is there any injury insurance these days? Who moves up to stunt coordinator or director? But for anyone fascinated by fighting disciplines, the nuts and bolts of moviemaking or, for that matter, the broader outlines of Asian culture, this is a vivid look at the sheer will and resolute code of conduct of performers who blend the skills of contortionist, street fighter, gymnast and actor into high art. Wong Chi Man, who was inspired by Chan and Hung, acknowledges an 80 percent chance of winding up in the hospital, but his pride of purpose is bottomless. "The [on-set] applause means more to me than the money," he says.
There's not much money. One baby-faced kid explains how, when the wire designed to enable his long Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style leap broke in mid-flight, he fell two stories onto a pile of jagged rocks. It took him two years to recover from his injuries. His salary for two days of work had been $50.
Today, the eloquent and amusing Shou explains, Hong Kong stuntmen combine the flashy aggression of martial-arts styles like Wu Shu and Southern Fist with the smoother, more refined opera fighting brought to the screen by the original Red Trousers graduates. Energized by fear of failure as much as pride -- saving face is crucial on the set, too -- these daredevils know all about the honored tradition they come from, and amid the one-upmanship and machismo that drive them, they understand their debt to history. In the end, Shou homes in on a sixteen-year-old boy who has left his impoverished family to study martial arts and acting at a school in a distant city. Acknowledging his parents' sacrifice, he pledges to repay them and to justify their pride as he develops his art. "One day," he tells us, "you'll see me on TV." The camera lingers for a moment on the boy's face, and we can see that he is fighting back tears.
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