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The Tao of stuntmen

Low pay, long hours and little, if any, safety gear are all in a day's work for those in Hong Kong's martial arts films.

March 07, 2004|Henry Turner | Special to The Times

"Red Trousers" at first glance seems an odd title for an action film even if it is a documentary. The subtitle, "The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen," clarifies things a bit, but after watching a few minutes of the film and seeing stuntmen jump off eight-story buildings, get hit by cars, leap off bridges onto trucks and drive motorcycles off cliffs -- with no or minimal safety gear -- you might think the title of Robin Shou's film describes the color of the stuntmen's clothes when they are hauled away by paramedics.

A star of "Mortal Kombat," "Mortal Kombat Annihilation" and "Beverly Hills Ninja," Shou has returned to Hong Kong to open a window on the industry that set him on a path to Hollywood. "Red Trousers," his directorial debut, examines not only the incredibly dangerous lives of Hong Kong stuntmen but also their origins in the Beijing Opera, where many of them trained as children, studying under acrobatics masters who wouldn't hesitate to beat them.

"Red Trousers," Shou says, "refers to the life of indentured servitude of young children growing up in the Beijing Opera school." The film shows how this life both toughens them and makes them either disciplined or subservient enough to do whatever a stunt director asks.

Born in Hong Kong, Shou came to the United States at age 8 when his parents immigrated. When he was a little older, he studied martial arts, ultimately becoming a champion fighter. While on vacation in Hong Kong when he was 20, Shou was approached by a film producer who cast him as the villain in a martial arts film.

"The fight coordinator told me, 'Robin, this guy is going to kick you. I want you to hit the wall, bounce off it, fall down those stairs and then roll off and drop 10 feet to the floor -- can you do that?' I had absolutely no experience -- it was my first movie. They gave me knee pads and elbow pads -- that's all."

The stuntmen's dedication is difficult to fathom. "Money is a side thing," Shou says. These are men finding their identity through their work. If you're a standout, you're able to become a coordinator and later a director or producer, and maybe one day you can have your own production company."

Many Chinese action stars have their roots in the Beijing Opera. "The opera actors are almost like jesters from the old days -- they are entertainers. That's where Jackie Chan's and Sammo Hung's comedic expressions are from. Everything they do is very big and exaggerated -- because the origin is as stage performance."

The documentary frames a live-action martial arts short film called "Lost Time." As fights take place within the short film, the documentary cuts in, showing how the stunts were accomplished. " 'Lost Time' was edited as a complete film, with the documentary footage cut in later," Shou explains. "I focused my attention on particular stuntmen and found exact points to cut in and out. I didn't want to break up the story too much. If I cut at the wrong point, neither the story or the stunts would make sense."

Insight into stuntmen

The short "Lost Time" was written by Craig Reid, a Westerner with years of experience in China. His life story deserves a documentary of its own. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 16, Reid was given five years to live. He studied martial arts and ultimately made his way to Taiwan, where he learned Chinese and studied chi gong energy healing, a practice that has allowed him to stop taking pharmaceuticals. Now in his early 40s, Reid is one of the oldest living people with cystic fibrosis. He attributes his expertise in chi with saving his life.

To make a living in Taiwan, Reid joined the stunt industry. "There were several instances on movies where I would take a hit and dislocate my neck. I split my tailbone. On one show we were doing a sequence where a guard was to come in the room and hit me in the stomach with a sword. But instead he hit me across the face and sliced my face open. Blood was oozing out of the wound, but I kept it together for a few more minutes because they were filming without any cuts. That gained me a lot of respect from the stunt director."

Reid, who also was a freelance journalist, first met Shou while writing a profile of the star for Black Belt magazine. They soon started cowriting scripts. "He liked my philosophy on martial arts, and I think it was very rare for him to meet a Western guy who practices chi gong and uses it for the reasons I use it."

"Lost Time" concerns an assassin named Evan (Shou), who fights evil in modern China. Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," was to play the villain, Jia Fei. But Parker's commitments to "Star Wars" publicity prevented him from taking the role -- affording Reid an opportunity to return to the screen. "I arrived in Hong Kong and Robin said ... 'You're going to play Jia Fei.' So I ended up playing the bad guy."

Reid's self-discipline in overcoming his condition, and his long experience in China, gives him insight into what motivates stuntmen. "It's about [saving] face and pride. It's not ego, it's certainly not for fame or money -- an average stuntman's pay for one day is $200, and for that they will work for 18 hours. They will get one meal, which is usually rice and chicken feet, maybe some noodles, they get 10 minutes to eat, and they will do any dangerous stunt regardless of how many takes."

He emphasizes their passion and the Chinese history of enduring hardship. "Chinese society has always been very tough. Even in today's society it's a hard place to live, and the Chinese don't complain."

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