Shaolin Soccer (2001)
Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer is very much a product of the culture and regional film industry that created it. An established comedian from Hong Kong, he puts an interesting spin on the traditional rags to riches sports movie genre! It is liberally laced with a lot of visual slapstick and showcases some aspects of Chinese humour that may confuse and wrong foot the average westerner. This film is also a treat for the film buff, as Chow has included numerous homages to classics martial arts movies, which are often referred to in a very tongue in-cheek fashion.
The story is formulaic and centres on a group of disillusioned Kung-Fu exponents who have gone their separate ways and languish in mundane jobs. Chow is spotted using his Kung-Fu skills at work by crippled ex-football star Ng Man Tat. He sees the potential of forming a football team using the Shaolin martial art as its underlying ethos. The former friends subsequently reform, regain their self-respect and set their sights upon the prestigious China Cup. Throw into the mix an evil team manager of genetically enhanced players and a romantic sub plot and you have Shaolin Soccer.
This film is clearly a comedy that will either delight you or annoy you. The digital effects that embellish the action scenes are very cheesy but add to the total package. Some of the jokes are somewhat culturally specific and therefore may not appeal to all audiences. For example one of the team, an overweight gentleman, has a penchant for eggs and will not see them wasted. He happily licks up a broken egg of another’s player’s boot. This leads to some rather interesting gags that may bother the homophobic viewer.
Despite the niche market nature of Shaolin Soccer it has many redeeming qualities. The characters are very appealing and the football matches are a pleasure to watch. The novel central idea of the film works quite well and has a well-paced story arc. The main themes are surprisingly moral, yet do not in any way spoil the humour by be self righteous. There is also an excellent pounding soundtrack from Raymond Wong which encapsulates the seventies Kung-Fu idiom.
Once again I have to draw your attention to the different versions of this film. I saw a R3 DVD copy in the original Cantonese dialogue as the director intended. When Miramax released this film in the US, it was re-cut (to remove any aspect of the plot that would confuse an American audience) and the dialogue dubbed into English. Even the bill boards and posters in the football stadium were digitally altered to reflect US products. Avoid this copy! It robs the film of much of its charm and displays an unpleasant air of condescension to the source material. Try the original if you have broad taste or like martial arts comedies.