Shaolin Soccer by Stephen Chow (Review)

Simply describing this film as a movie about a bunch of Shaolin monks playing soccer might be accurate enough, but it barely scratches the surface.
Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow

Every so often, a movie comes along that I can’t help but rave about, regardless of how many blank stares and incredulous looks I get. Friends may snicker, family members may shake their heads, and co-workers may brush me off, but I keep at it, hoping that someone will get the hint. Movies like these are the reason why I even began to write reviews, and why I spend so much time and money on my cinematic fetish. And I will shout it from the mountains; Shaolin Soccer is one of these movies.

I think I was destined to see this movie. First of all, any movie with the word “Shaolin” in the title is going to get my attention. And this one doubly so. I doubt you’ve ever seen a movie about a bunch of misfit ex-Shaolin monks who start a soccer team to promote Shaolin kung fu to the masses. Where some might groan at the premise, I was intrigued. Then I heard the recommendations from my co-worker, and saw that it had shattered all sorts of box office records in Asia. I knew I had to see it for myself. As if that weren’t enough, everytime I did went to HKFlix, there it was, before my eyes. Who am I to resist the call of fate?

Simply describing this film as a movie about a bunch of Shaolin monks playing soccer might be accurate enough, but it barely scratches the surface. It starts 20 years ago, when “Golden Leg” Fung, the most popular soccer player in the land, agrees to throw a game. The crowd riots, and “Golden Leg” is left crippled. Flash forward, and Fung is now a broken man, working for Hung, the very man who set him up. One day, Fung runs into Sing (Stephen Chow), a former Shaolin monk who wants to bring the teachings of Shaolin to the masses, but doesn’t know how. Then Fung sees Sing take on a bunch of thugs with nothing but a soccer ball, and proceed to kick the crap out of them.

Fung decides to use Sing’s amazing kicking powers and create a powerful soccer team that will defeat Hung and his Evil Team. Sing, realizing that soccer is the perfect way to spread Shaolin teachings, recruits his former classmates. Like Sing, each has his own special power. One has a head of iron, another can use his stomach muscles to propel the ball with great force. There’s the 300 pound monk who can walk on air, and the monk whose acrobatic skills would make Kurt Thomas green with envy. And then there’s the goalie, whose Bruce Lee impersonation is almost eerie to watch, and who can can stop any shot.

Needless to say, hilarity ensues. This movie is an absolute riot to watch, and by the time the Shaolin team takes on the Evil Team (yes, they’re really called the “Evil Team”) for the final showdown, I was rolling on the floor. Nothing in this movie can, or should be taken seriously, and as a result, everything goes. Several scenes had me in stitches; the lounge act promoting the merits of Shaolin, the training sequences, the match against the mustachioed female team, the references to Jurassic Park and other movies. Even the dumbest sight gags (a la Airplane) had me chuckling.

This was the first Stephen Chow flick I’ve seen, and I’m already a fan. He’s perfect at playing the lovable buffoon; he makes it look so effortless. And his supporting cast is stellar. The biggest delight is Vicki Zhao. Zhao plays Mui, a disfigured pastry chef who uses tai chi to make the perfect bread. Unlike her scene-chewing performance in The Duel, Zhao turns in a lowkey, touching performance here.

And on top of everything is a generous helping of special effects. Borrowing liberally from movies like The Matrix, Shaolin Soccer use CGI and digital effects everywhere. Unlike The Duel, where the abundance of effects hurt the movie, Shaolin Soccer plays up the cartoonish-ness of everything; Sing’s battle with the thugs looks like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Sure, some of the effects look pretty fake, but who cares? You’ll probably be laughing so hard when Sing kicks the ball into warp speed, you won’t even care. If anything, they just add to the fun.

I popped Shaolin Soccer into my DVD player, and it was almost painful when I had to stop watching in the middle. I held on as long as I could, waited as long as I could, because I was enjoying it so much. But when I picked up where I left off, it was like getting back together with an old friend. And I kept rewatching parts of the movie until 1:00am. That’s what this movie did to me. And when this movie hits the theatres (Disney bought the U.S. distribution rights), I’ll be first in line. And I won’t be alone, even if I have to drag my friends to it, kicking and screaming. I know that, afterwards, they’ll thank me.

Unfortunately, it looks like you’ll have to wait for in the theatres. Since Disney has the rights, it is no longer possible to buy this movie in North America. And when Disney does release it here in the states, you can expect it to be butchered and neutered (just look at Jet Li’s domestically-released movies). Still, even a butchered Shaolin Soccer is better than anything else Hollywood has been capable of lately. Honestly, which would you rather see? Sing and his fellow monks tearing it up on the soccer field with hilarious effects and slapstick comedy, or the latest featuring Saturday Night Live alumni?

I rest my case.

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