This article appeared in Issue 38 ofAsian Cult Cinema
While movie stars such as Chow Yun-fat ("Anna and the King"), Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Zhang Ziyi ("Rush Hour 2"), Jet Li ("Kiss of the Dragon"), and Jackie Chan ("Shanghai Noon") have become household names in North America, one of the biggest names in Hong Kong cinema is still relatively unknown. Funnyman Stephen Chow has built his career on absurdist humor and Jim Carrey-style shenanigans in films such as "The King of Comedy", "From Beijing with Love", and "The God of Cookery" (which was slated to be remade into a Jim Carrey vehicle before falling into development hell). Unfortunately, because of his penchant for Cantonese wordplay and in-references to Chinese culture, it has been difficult for his films to find audiences outside of his native Hong Kong and China.
However, with his latest comedy, "Shaolin Soccer (Siu Lam Juk Kau)" (in which Chow acted, produced, co-wrote, and co-directed), it is hoped that this will all change. Having already become the biggest hit at the Hong Kong box office this past summer, "Shaolin Soccer" is being readied for a stateside release by Miramax, which snapped up the worldwide distribution rights this past May. And though the humor is uneven and somewhat skewed to Chinese pop culture, the unlikely combination of soccer with martial arts chic make this a must-see.
Chow plays Sing, a Shaolin monk with superlative martial arts skills and a 'leg of steel'. Unfortunately, in modern-day China, there is little money to be made in being a monk, so Sing ekes out a meager living collecting garbage. The situation is not that much better for his fellow Shaolin brothers, who, following the death of their master long ago, have left their martial arts ways behind them to become a janitor, grocery store clerk, or even a stockbroker (though not a very good one).
However, they are all reunited when Sing's superlative kick catches the attention of down-on-his-luck soccer coach 'Golden Leg' Fung (Ng Mang-tat of "Happy Together"), and enters them in a soccer competition with a $1 million prize. Though it takes Sing and his brothers a while to get the hang of the game, the combination of their Shaolin-style martial arts and their newfound soccer skills make them an unbeatable force (one comic bit features Karen Mok of "Fallen Angels" and Cecilia Cheung of "Tokyo Raiders" as opposing soccer players who are bested by Sing). Sing also finds inspiration from a homely street vendor named Mui (Vicky Zhao of "The Duel") who applies martial arts to the art of baking. Unfortunately, the road to victory will be long and painful, as Fung's well-heeled and long-time rival Hung (Hong Kong screen icon Tse Yin) plans to crush Sing's chances of winning with his steroid-popping 'Evil' team.
"Shaolin Soccer" shines in the sequences where Sing and his teammates flex their martial arts prowess on the playing field. Combining 'wire-fu' techniques and extensive CGI digital post-production (it took four teams of programmers working 24x7 five months to complete the 400 effects shots in the film), this film presents the game of soccer in 'bullet-time' (à la "The Matrix"). A kicked ball morphs into a ball of fire and then the flaming outline of a tiger as it races across the field. Another kicked ball creates a shock wave as it flies through the air, creating a vortex that chews up the field along the way. Players make impossible passes, leaping several stories into the air or doing backflips that defy the laws of physics. Unlucky goalies have their sleeves blasted off by the impact of a supersonic soccer ball. The eye candy is breathtaking, unforgettable, and most of all, very cool.
Unfortunately, like most Hong Kong comedies, the quality of the writing wavers in "Shaolin Soccer", with a few gags that don't quite work and some scenes that quickly wear out their welcome. Thankfully, these are greatly outweighed by the gags that do work, though it would help if you had some passing familiarity with diverse subjects such as Chinese opera, wu shu (Chinese fantasy swordplay) conventions, and who Wong Fei-hung is. Even if you don't, there still are enough nods at Bruce Lee, "The Matrix", and other broad targets of humor to ensure a good time.
With its goofy and fun high-concept combination of soccer and kung-fu, "Shaolin Soccer" fans of martial arts films will undoubtedly get their kicks. However, thanks to the in-roads made by films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Rush Hour 2", Stephen Chow's latest effort should also find the broad audience it deserves when it bows into North American theaters. But if you are itching for some "Shaolin Soccer" right now, the film is currently available on an all-region DVD and VCD, both of which have English subtitles.
This movie is available from PokerIndustries.com