A film review by Craig J. Koban

SHAOLIN SOCCER jjj
½ 

2004, PG-13, 117 mins.

Sing: Stephen Chow / Mui: Vicki Zhao / Fung: Ng Man Tat / Hung: Patrick Tse Yin / Soccer Player: Cecilia Cheung / Soccer Player: Karen Mok

Directed by Stephen Chow / Written by Stephen Chow and Kan-Cheung Tsang

In Cantonese with English subtitles

Shaolin Soccer PosterI am not really very sure that there is a film going experience out there that will prepare audiences in any way to deal with SHAOLIN SOCCER.  This is especially true since it features soccer players that can kick balls into orbit, defy gravity in ways only the Wachowski Brothers have managed to dream up, and can seem to summon up gigantic fireballs behind them in some sort of Zen like effort to mobilize their life energy.  Clearly, people in Hong Kong may have the greatest level of suspension of disbelief, and you’re going to need it by the proverbial truckload with this film. 

It's one thing to believe that a group of underdogs can overcome insurmountable obstacles to achieve ultimate victory, but to do so by hurtling yourself 100 feet in the air and partake in acrobatic moves that would make Spider-man blush…well…gotta admit…NEVER seen that in a film before.  SHAOLIN SOCCER is, without a doubt, one of the strangest and most implausible films I have ever seen and under the most conservative eye, it could be seen as enormously silly.  Well, it kind of is, and it revels in its inanity.  It’s a glorious celebration of goofiness and reality-defying stupidity.  But, then again, that’s why the film is such a charming romp! 

SHAOLIN SOCCER has gained a completely legendary status from in its home country or origin, Hong Kong.  When it was released there in 2002 it quickly became the highest grossing film in Hong Kong’s history, making HK$60 million (US$7.7 million) at the local box office.   It, unfortunately, was one of a series of Asian films that the American based Miramax optioned for US release between 2001 and 2002.  Yet, the terrible thing was that Miramax purchased the overseas rights and the film essentially sat in a fault, on again and off again, for a few years.  It did make a premiere at the 2002 Toronto film festival where it apparently was a huge hit and had a loyal following of admirers.   

The bad part of this story is that Miramax head honcho, Harvey Weinstein, decided that it was best to shelf this loved film for two years until May of this year.  Even worse was his keen lack of integrity and foresight.  He essentially trimmed the film from its nearly two hour running time by over 30 minutes,  thinking that the film’s comedy would be too broad for American audiences.  Funny, but after seeing people get their privates caught in their zippers and showing certain unnamed bodily fluids be used as hair product in another US made comedy, I am not sure what good ol’ Harve was protecting us from.  Nevertheless, the film was released in a horribly truncated version opposite KILL BILL 2, which reveals that Harvey did not care about the film’s success.   

Thank God for the DVD format, as SHAOLIN SOCCER has just recently been released in a wonderful Special Edition DVD that now gives fans a choice of either watching the abbreviated WEINSTEIN US version or the original HONG KONG version unedited with subtitles.  If anything, it’s too bad that they did not offer the original version in dubbed English like the US version.  Surly,  dubbing can make the most serious film look really dumb, but since SHAOLIN SOCCER’s premise is ridiculous, an equally moronic dub might have heightened the comedy, as it does in Jackie Chan films. 

Nitpicking aside, SHAOLIN SOCCER is a really screwed up two hours.  Think THE MATRIX meets DODGEBALL meets CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON meets every clichéd sports film and you will have a vague idea what SHAOLIN SOCCER is like.  The film was written, directed, an acted in by Stephen Chow.  He stars in the film as Sing, a martial arts master who becomes what appears to be a street cleaner.  Yet, he is one of those starry eyed dreamers that has a definitive philosophy of life that everyone seems to have – that Kung Fu can be used for everything, from pruning trees to cleaning floors to parallel parking cars (no, trust me on that last one, it has to be seen to be believed). 

Anyway, while he wanders around the streets looking for meaning, he stumbles across Mui, a shy and reserved street baker who appears unassuming to most, but underneath her meek exterior is a formidable kung-fu artist (you know, like most street bakers).  The meeting with them is not the typical “meet-cute”, but manages, amazingly at one point, to emerge into a big dance number involving Sing and a bunch of strangers on the street performer what seems to be Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  Gee, did not see that coming at all.  I think that it’s pretty obvious that this girl will figure in very heavily in the film’s concluding sporting contest. 

How does Sing get into Soccer, you ask?  Well, he gets ultimate inspiration from a former professional soccer player aptly and humorously named The Golden Leg, clearly because he was a renown soccer hero years ago until his leg was severely broken by the despicably evil Hung.  Hung, in the present day, now rules the soccer world with his notorious team known as Team Evil (a particular Doctor should file a copyright lawsuit).  Sing, of course, believes that he know has a practical application of all of the martial arts that he has used in life and now wishes to mould it into soccer (this is especially amusing, seeing as I am not  sure of the practical applications of kung fu to the sport of soccer, but never mind).  The Golden Leg decides to help train Sing and asks him to gather up his five brothers to create a mighty Shaolin soccer team.  The film is startling similar to this year's DODGEBALL, which also featured a ragtag group of nobodies being trained by a wise old former pro to battle their evil nemesis at the final game.  It’s ironic, because kung fu would logical apply to dodgeball more than soccer.  Ben Stiller’s Globo Gym could have learned a lot by watching this film. 

As a sports film, its both one of the most conventional and non-conventional I’ve ever seen.  I say it’s conventional in the sense that it’s completely obvious (unless you are not privy to the cinematic laws of these types of sports films) that Team Evil will be the ultimate loser in the final big game versus the team of misfits.  The film is also predicated on the notion of the one meager character will assume a large role at the end that all but assures a grand victory.  Yet, the film is so utterly unconventional in the sense that it, unequivocally, completely disregards all laws of physics and gravity, not too mention any pertinent rules of the sport of soccer. 

This isn’t BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM!  The players in this game are able to hurdle themselves hundreds of feat in the air effortlessly, kick balls with a speed and velocity so fast that the ball actually manages to form a fireball around it.  In one uproariously funny moment a character kicks the ball so hard that it forms a meteor crater in the ground and the eventual firestorm burns off all of the clothes of the goalkeeper.  I am not sure what’s more funny, the fact that all the players engage in the game and play like superheroes on speed, or the fact that the officials don’t seem to care about the numerous rules players break while playing, or, even more importantly, how the vast crowds seem completely oblivious to the fact that the players are making like Superman and kicking balls so hard that third degree burns are the natural result. 

This film exists on the sheer lunacy of its simple premise, but it builds to such broad and incredible comic high jinks that’s its remarkable to think why Miramax decided to trim down the film’s comedy, which is exactly what this film lives for.  This is not a thorough and thoughtfully introspective look into the world’s most popular sport.  No sir, Chow and company are primarily motivated by presenting the insane to us and, after they do that, they show us something even more unearthly.  The film works completely on these levels.  Sure, it’s a telegraphed genre sports picture with very little, if any,  suspense, but its about showing us sights and feats that we’ve clearly never seen before in a sports film.  SHAOLIN SOCCER works sort as a wonderfully wacky live action cartoon with absurdist visuals often punctuated by large amounts of very bad CG effects (this time the lack of polish kind of works for the film’s charm).  This is a movie of BIG sights that are intended to make audiences laugh, and it never falters.  SHAOLIN SOCCER, if you enter into it with the correct frame of mind, is one the most unapologetically hilarious films of the year. 

If there were awards given to films that are masterpieces of buffoonery and overall goofiness, then SHAOLIN SOCCER should take top mention.  To label the film as utterly dumb misses the point entirely, I think. This is not a sports film in the classic sense but a fantasy/farce that is wall to wall with ingeniously conceived visuals that are as light hearted as anything I’ve seen.  It’s a silly film through and through, but who said that a film that is capable of inspiring consistent laughter throughout its two hours is a bad thing?  SHAOLIN SOCCER is not just funny...it’s an absolute slapstick riot.  Sometimes there’s nothing more invigorating than to watch a film with a small audience and be completely lost it’s complete lack of normal logic and reality.  SHAOLIN SOCCER is an escapist pleasure.

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