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Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen
Part short film and part full-length documentary, Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen (2003) is an entertaining blend of action and real-life drama that plays exceptionally well on DVD---after all, it's a film and special feature all in one. Robin Shou (of Mortal Kombat fame) "hosts" the documentary and also pulls double duty as director and star of Lost Time (above), the short film that provides the framework for the feature's heart and soul. To be honest, the futuristic short film isn't an especially original effort---while the packaging likens it to Alex Proyas' excellent Dark City, I'd probably compare it to The One---but the short film really isn't the selling point here. Frequent well-executed cuts break our attention away from Lost Time, immediately transporting the viewer behind the scenes. We're treated to an in-depth look at the dangerous stunts performed during this film and several others...and just for fun, there's even some history thrown in.
In short, Red Trousers refers to the clothes worn by some of the earliest "stuntmen": indentured servants of the Peking Opera School in China---mostly young children---who weren't compensated for their physically demanding efforts. Today's environment is much different: young students train because they want to. In fact, that's the underlying emotion running through the bulk of Red Trousers: people having fun while they work, despite risking life and limb every time a stunt is attempted. It's great to nail a take on the first try if you're an actor...but in this case, it's almost necessary. Although many viewers may cringe at several of the film's more painful "failed attempts" (and even the successful ones!), this dangerous element is a necessity. There's no "don't try this at home" warning beforehand---but if amateurs are dumb enough to attempt this stuff, the only compensation they'll get is a Darwin Award.
As the host of the documentary, Robin Shou is enthusiastic and likeable. His laid-back style might seem unusual for someone who risks so much, but it's not far from the attitude of his peers. Legends of the martial arts world---such as Sammo Hung (above) and Master Lau Kar Leung---are on hand to share a handful of personal experiences, with the documentary often cutting away to classic footage of the pros in action. Their love for stuntwork is still clearly apparent, but they have the maturity and slightly cautious demeanor of true veterans. Red Trousers also looks toward the future by paying a visit to China's Hope Art School, a training ground for future hopefuls of the martial arts world. The talent shown by even some of the youngest students is amazing, eliminating any doubt that stunt work will ever die. It'll break a few bones, of course...but it'll never die.
While my first instincts told me that hardcore martial arts lovers might not learn anything new here, Red Trousers is an entertaining feature that any fan of the genre should really enjoy. The main feature goes by quickly at just 96 minutes, but it's an interesting and action-packed ride that holds up to repeat viewings. Sure, Lost Time may actually be the weakest part of this feature, but it's a small price to pay for the exceptional documentary footage found within. The film covers a lot of ground in its short running time, almost worthy of a stand-alone DVD release. Tai Seng Entertainment has gone one step further with this 2-disc Collector's Edition, pairing the excellent main feature with a nice assortment of bonus material. The technical presentation is slightly hit-or-miss, but this is still a solid buy for under $20. With that said, let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
There's a wealth of footage here, but the quality varies every step of the way. The modern behind-the-scenes footage looks clean and clear, though the colors seem a bit oversaturated in certain scenes (above). Vintage film clips are muddy and slightly smeared, but the original source material is probably to blame. Actual footage from Lost Time is quite good during daytime and brightly lit scenes, yet the film's darker portions---of which there are many, especially early on---are entirely too black, resulting in a significant loss of detail to the otherwise terrific action sequences. Everything is presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and there's no doubt that anamorphic enhancement would have helped the video a bit. Still, there's no way most of this footage could look perfect---and given the quality of most Hong Kong imports on DVD, martial arts fans won't be disappointed.
The audio fares much better, and there's certainly plenty to choose from. The original English/Cantonese track features DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 options, and there's also English-only, Cantonese-only, Spanish and Mandarin mixes (either in 2.0 or 5.1). The Cantonese DTS track sounds terrific, especially during Lost Time---it's a forceful, dynamic mix that really packs a punch! The 5.1 option is no slouch either, offering a fine atmosphere and clear dialogue. There's optional English subtitles, too---but they only translate the Cantonese dialogue instead of doing full-time work.
Although the menus are surprisingly basic, the smooth navigation makes up for it. The 96-minute film has been divided into 12 chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging itself is really well done, though: this 2-disc set is housed in a single-width black keepcase with no inserts included. However, there's also a handsome hardback book with movie stills from Lost Time, though an interview or essay would have been a nice inclusion. Both are tucked inside a very sturdy slipcase---believe me, this $20 release looks like a million bucks!
There's a fine mix of bonus material on this 2-disc set, but I was still left wanting a bit more. First up is an Audio Commentary with director/actor Robin Shou, co-star Keith Hirabayashi and the film's writer, Dr. Craig D. Reid. While most documentaries don't offer much in the way of commentary, this track was an especially nice listen. The three have great chemistry together and seem to be having a fun time, and there aren't many gaps during the session. It would've been nice to hear a stuntman-only track---especially under the circumstances---but this was a nice inclusion that suits the film well.
The rest of the supplements are on Disc 2, starting off with a pair of Extended Interviews with Sammo Hung (12 minutes) and Master Lau Kar Leung (17 minutes). Leung, in particular, is as energetic and wild as he is during the main feature, with the camera often panning back a bit to show him "in action". Next up are a series of Deleted Scenes (30 minutes) shot at the Hope Art School---it's one of the documentary's strongest segments, so more footage is most certainly welcome. Winding things down are a self-guided Photo Gallery (5 minutes) and a series of Trailers (including one for the film itself). The most obvious supplement that wasn't included was the short film by itself; while I realize it works well hand-in-hand with the documentary, it would've been nice to see it uninterrupted. All things considered, though, this is a nicely-stacked set for the asking price.
The film itself is a must-see for any martial arts or action film enthusiast. Lost Time almost seems like an afterthought in comparison to the actual documentary footage, but the pairing of both elements creates a unique and interesting viewing experience. While the DVD itself suffers slightly in the video department, there's more than enough good things here to make up for it---including a terrific audio mix, a few interesting bonus features and an excellent packaging job. Overall, Red Trousers is a well-rounded (and very affordable!) choice for all interested parties. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an action-packed art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.