Comedy, Films, Hong Kong, Reviews

Shaolin Soccer

4 stars

Siu Lam Juk Kau. Hong Kong 2001. Written and directed by Stephen Chow. With Stephen Chow, Zhao Wei, Ng Man-tat, Patrick Tse, Wong Yut-fei. Action direction by Ching Sui-tung. 113 mins. In Cantonese with English subtitles.

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With the imminent release of Kung Fu Hustle on DVD, is there a better time to revisit this silly but fun classic?…

Even before the release of Shaolin Soccer, writer, director and star Stephen Chow – revered in his home Hong Kong – had been causing a stir on the international scene.

Despite the fact that most Asian comedies don’t translate terribly well, Chow’s silly but surefooted brand of comedy had started to establish him an audience in the west with films like God of Cookery and King Of Comedy. Shaolin Soccer has, when finally released, made him an international star.

In Shaolin Soccer Chow plays Sing, an ex-Shaolin monk who carves out a meagre existence as a street sweeper. He dreams of a world where everyone uses Shaolin martial arts to benefit their lives – No more slipping on banana skins or trouble parking. But how can he convey this message to the masses.

By chance Sing meets the disgruntled ex-coach of China’s most successful football team, Golden Leg Fung (Ng Man-tat) and suddenly it becomes clear – why not use China’s (and Britain’s) favourite game to spread the word? He gather’s his misfit Shaolin brothers’, all of whom share Sing’s lack of success, to form a team to face Fung’s ex-boss Hung’s team in a tournament involving China’s greatest football teams.

In the meantime, Sing falls for Mui a dumpling chef whose face is scared from the heat who uses martial arts to create her delights. (Zhao Wei, So Close, can still hardly disguise her cuteness despite the make up!) Soon Sing and his brothers are using their Shaolin powers to defeat all their opponents (is that in the FIFA rules?)- but are even they enough to face Hung’s evil team?

Chow inventive script recalls the 36th Chamber Of Shaolin inspired films (like Karate Kid), where unusual objects and tasks were used to train the monks in the martial arts. The twist being that it’s Fung the coach who teaches them to the Shaolin. It also remembers the martial arts tournament films, like Enter The Dragon and Master of the Flying Guillotine, relocating the action to the football pitch.

Chow liberally spreads his film with reams of references, many of which Western audiences will get. They include Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and, in the director’s cut, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Then, of course, there’s the obligatory Bruce Lee references (see King of Comedy for more). Here the goalkeeper H becomes a carbon copy of Bruce, his outfit Bruce’s iconic tracksuit from Game Of Death, with all of his gestures note perfect.

His co-stars from King Of Comedy, Karen Mok and Cecilia Cheung, cameo as rival team the ‘Dragons’, complete with fake dreads and pencil thin moustaches. There’s even a sly red flag waving stab at the West, as Hung’s evil team use American drugs to make them as powerful as the Shaolin and their wholesome Chinese spiritual kung fu.

With famed action director Ching Siu-tung on board, who also worked on Hero, the action sequences look as fab as they do silly. Even the CGI effects haven’t dated too badly. It became most successful Hong Kong film of all time.

It’s hard to see why Miramax took so long to release this film. Having bagged it since it’s original Asian release in 2001, they ignored the international soccer fever caused by the 2002 World Cup, which just happened to be taking place in Asia (South Korea and Japan). Could there have been a more perfect springboard for the films release, with the world still reeling from the success of Crouching Tiger?

With hindsight, one can’t help but wonder if they just didn’t want anything getting in the way of the release of their prodigy Tarantino’s work, Kill Bill, it relying so heavily on Asian source material. Hell, just think how clever Tarantino’s Game Of Death styled biker-suited Uma Thurman would have looked after Chow’s rather more inspired Game Of Death track-suited goal keeper? Whatever the reason, it seems strange that the same fate befell other films acquired by Miramax over the same period, including Hero and Legend Of Zu, (aka Zu Warriors) which never even got a proper release.

Shaolin Soccer is a great comedy that should not be missed! You don’t even have to be a footie or a kung fu fan.

Home media details

Distributor: Universe (Hong Kong)

The original Hong Kong DVD of this film includes an unusual amount of special features for a single disc DVD. It includes an option to watch b-roll material, and the extra two scenes and outtakes in the ‘directors cut’, and more besides.

Thanks to Miramax/Disney this edition is pretty difficult to get hold of outside of Hong Kong. However, the newly released UK DVD includes the extended Hong Kong version, as well as the dubbed reedit, and plenty of extras – making it just as good as the original release.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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