Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Written & Directed by Stephen Chow Sing Chi

Co-directed by Derek Lee Lik Chi & Tony Ching Siu Tung

Produced by Yeung Kwok Fai

Starring Stephen Chow Sing Chi, Vicky Zhao Wei, Richard Ng Man Tat, Patrick Tse Yin, Sarondar Li Hui, Wong Yat Fei, Tin Kai Man, Lam Chi Chung, Chan Kwok Kwan, Mok Mei Lam, Lam Chi Sin, Cameo appearances by Cecelia Cheung Pak, Karen Mok Man Wei & Vincent Kwok Tak Chiu

Shaolin Soccer

Hong Kong's clown prince of comedy, Stephen Chow, is undoubtedly one of the region's finest entertainers, yet his name is not as well known to international audiences as those of his more visible contemporaries (ie: Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat). Western film buffs may ponder "why?", but committed Hong Kong film enthusiasts will smile knowingly and simply answer with three Cantonese words: "mo lei tau".

Mo Lei Tau (or "no brain"/nonsense) comedy is what Mr. Chow is renowned for in Asian territories, and he is without a peer in his field. However, for Western viewers without a firm grasp of how his style of comedy functions, the joke falls flat on its face. Mo Lei Tau is a furious blend of playful tonal inversion of dialects, double entendres & innuendo, lunatic Asian slapstick, puns, insults, sarcasm, ridiculous sight gags, and a general sense of absurd "anything-for-a-laugh" focus. For want of a better simile, it's like Jim Carrey on speed. If you're not ready for it, you may just scratch your head and wonder exactly what the hell is going on! So, with this (possibly) newfound knowledge in hand, let's take a gander at Steve's latest cinematic epic, the absolutely mind-blowing...

Shaolin Soccer!

Twenty years ago the title of the greatest soccer ("football" for my counterparts in the British Isles & Scotland) player in Asia was fiercely contested between bitter rivals Hung and Fung (aka: Golden Leg). However, at the China Super Cup, Fung succumbed to greed and, pocketing an illicit cheque payment from Hung, threw the goal that would have won his team the championship. Outraged fans stormed the pitch, venting their fury on Fung by crippling him, leaving Hung laughing all the way to the bank in the knowledge that his cheque will be dishonoured. Segue to the present where the once mighty Fung (Ng) has become a lowly aid amidst Hung's (Tse) all dominating evil soccer empire. Hung's Evil Team are now the undisputed lords of the pitch across the Asian territories, unchallenged and undefeated.

Contemplating the misfortunes of his past greed whilst stumbling about the city (largely Shanghai) streets, Fung happens across impoverished street-cleaner Sing (Chow), who expounds the virtues of Shaolin kung fu to him. It is Sing's life mission to bring his art to the masses, spreading his message in honour of his passed Shaolin master. Fung scoffs at his old fashioned beliefs and the two men go their separate ways. In his travels Sing discovers street vendor Mui (Zhao), a disfigured girl who harnesses her Tai Chi abilities to produce publicly renowned steamed buns, and the pair hit it off as friends. In his quest to bring his kung fu to the people, Sing calls upon former classmate Fei (aka: Iron Head) with ideas to meld his art with modern ideals, thus making it more palatable for the populace. Sadly, the idea of Shaolin kung fu and karaoke is not a widely appreciated one.

Inevitably, Fung and Sing cross paths again when the former witnesses the latter channel his skills through a deadly soccer match with a gang of small time street triads. Astonished by what he has witnessed, Fung proposes an alliance with Sing to form a soccer "super team", leaving Sing to round up former fellow students Iron Head, Iron Shirt (Tin), Empty Hands (Chan), Weight Vest (Lam) and Hooking Leg (Mok). Initially rejected by all, the Shaolin students soon rally to Sing's side, catching a glimmer of reclaiming their past esteem. With Fung as their coach and mentor, the kung fu proteges soon learn to apply their existing martial arts prowess on the soccer field and their target becomes entering the National Soccer Tournament, with hopes of claiming the $1 million title prize money. What follows is a mind blowing journey that leaves their opponents devastated, Sing gradually aware of a blossoming romance with Mui, the students regaining their dignity, and ultimately a climactic showdown with Hung's genetically enhanced Evil Team and a shot at the title in the China Super Cup.

Rarely would I suggest for readers of this site to take a brief respite from the usual genre fare to give a Hong Kong kung fu-sports-romantic-comedy the time of day, but when it's of the exceedingly high calibre of Stephen Chow's magnificent return to form then the compulsion becomes overwhelming. I doubt that a majority would have ever seen a film like this, and I doubt that once seen you will even begin to believe what you have just seen! Chow's latest blockbuster venture is EXACTLY the sort of amazing entertainment that switched me onto Hong Kong cinema over a decade ago, albeit amplified beyond nearly everything I have seen from the region prior. "Shaolin Soccer" is a film that takes a ludicrous premise (kung fu and soccer? Come on!), then resolutely tips it on its head to create an enjoyably stunning two hours of cinema. The staggering results are of such mind-blowing proportions, the likes of which I have not experienced in Hong Kong cinema for a number of years, that I will be probably still attempting to come to terms with it when you are reading this.

Although primarily Chow's magnum opus, the film benefits immeasurably from the assistance of co-directors (long-time collaborator) Derek Lee and (martial arts director) Tony Ching. Tony Ching's work alone will knock you out of your seat, and it is a great relief that one of the region's most underrated choreographers has kept his feet firmly planted on home soil while countrymen Yuen Woo Ping and Corey Yuen have gravitated to the West. Western fans will know him for his work on the "Chinese Ghost Story" trilogy, John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow 2" and "The Killer", "Swordsman 1 & 2", as well as Sammo Hung's "Moon Warriors", "Wonder Seven" and Allan Lam's "Blacksheep Affair", but you'd all want to prepare yourself for this one. The combination of CGI and martial arts has just been taken to the next level! But without Mainland Chinese FX house Centro Digital Pictures ("Storm Riders", "A Man Called Hero", "Hot War"), it would all be for naught, so it's with great distinction that I can report that they have produced world-class digital effects work for this feature. The invention and imagination on show herein is incomparable within Asian cinema.

But what of the rest of the film, bar the martial arts and FX work? The cast are uniformly excellent, acquitting themselves beautifully. Sad to see one my past idols of Hong Kong cinema, Mr. Chow, beginning to show signs of his age, but this time around he produces one of the most accomplished works in his already lengthy cinematic career. Admittedly there is far less of his traditional "mo lei tau" contained herein, but for Western fans without prior experience in that area this might actually be a godsend. Long-time straight man Richard Ng plays off Chow superbly, displaying all the attributes of a veteran performer. Quaint starlet Vicky Zhao shines, the perfect romantic foil for Chow's Sing, even hidden under a ghastly layer of grimy makeup. The (underplayed) interplay between Chow and Zhao gives the film its intrinsic core romantic element, quietly unfolding amidst the spectacle. Chow's fellow students remain nigh on perfect throughout, however special mention must be made of Mainland newcomer Chan Kwok Kwan (the Shaolin goalie) whose Bruce Lee pastiche is dead on the money! Throw in a rousing, uplifting score by Raymond Wong (as well as the pumping techno-pop outro song, "Kick Out The Future", by Asian superstar Andy Lau) and you've got sterling evidence that Stephen Chow still has the Midas touch. Collectively, this is one of the finest achievements in (an oft-depressed) Hong Kong cinema of recent years that you are likely to see. Can reviewers award an 11 out of 10? :)

Universe come up trumps with quite possibly the best looking (and sounding) disc I've ever seen from a Hong Kong distributor. Letterboxed at an aspect ratio of 1.85 (possibly cropped as the opening credits seem to drop off either side of the frame) and anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 displays the image is simply dynamite. If all Hong Kong discs looked this good it would make my job a whole lot easier, I can tell you! By and large, the picture remains exemplary throughout and the usual array of benchmarks (colour, detail, shadow etc) is rendered exceptionally well. Couldn't spot a single compression or image flaw throughout 102 minutes of screen time I'm afraid! The only notable drawback, minor issue that it is, is that the higher definition defines Centro's digital effects with a little too much clarity in some passages, lending them a rather cartoonish feel. As that notion reflects the overall tone of the film, this is a small quibble indeed. And the sound�oh the sound! For those with DTS capabilities, the DTS 5.0 track will kick your system into next week as it packs a tremendous punch! Even so, the Dolby 5.1 track thunders, and is possibly capable of popping your subs (if you play it at the right level�ie: extremely LOUD!). There's also a 2 channel stereo track, but in all honesty�why bother! Great image quality, jaw-dropping sound quality.

But that's not where it ends! Extra features are of a similar high quality, although the inability to "remove" the White Rabbit styled Shaolin Soccer logo from the top right hand corner of the film's frame WILL annoy some viewers. So, what's with the logo? A white logo indicates extra footage that can be re-inserted via branching into the feature, simply by pressing your remote's "enter" key. The additional footage expands the film's duration by approximately 13 minutes and features a key scene that adds greatly to Zhao's character. The secondary yellow logo allows the viewer to branch to CGI development footage of the film's major FX scenes when it is displayed. As I previously mentioned though, these logos CANNOT be removed from playback�trust me, you'll get used to them. :)

In addition to Universe's pioneering use of the available technology, the viewer is treated to a Making Of featurette that runs approx. 20 minutes. Although benefited by English subtitles and the affable Mr. Chow, the featurette is let down somewhat by rather poor audio recording. The featurette is accompanied by an Outtakes Gag reel & Behind the Scenes with Centro's visual effects, neither of which are subtitled (which is odd, as the gag reel can be restored into the main feature with optional subtitles!). Rounding out the bonus materials are the film's teaser trailer, cast biographies and a photo gallery. The only extra this disc is really missing is the music video for Andy Lau's thumping techno-pop theme song, but who am I to complain? This disc is MORE than great value!

Apologies for the impossibly lengthy review, but had I actually got carried away with superlatives this may have been even longer than what is here. As previously mentioned, this is exactly the sort of film that typifies the incredible entertainment value that won me over to Hong Kong cinema in the first place. Films of this quality and calibre come along all too rarely these days from the region and accordingly should be embraced by all and sundry when they do. Those that claim that Chinese cinema has lost its magic need only to look towards "Shaolin Soccer", and hope that its massive box office success may usher in a new golden era of film across the region. I know I'm gushing here, but this is an unmitigated masterpiece and an extraordinary, rainbow coloured feather in Mr. Chow's already overflowing cap. Additionally, it is a confident kick off (excuse the pun!) to the new millennium for Chinese cinema from an artist I probably would have least expected to revitalise the industry (based upon his recent downturn in output). Put simply�see it anyway you can!

(Special thanks to Carl Moy & the friendly Mobius team for translations herein. HUGELY appreciated!)

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by Universe Laser & Video
Category II - Region 0
Running time - 102m (theatrical version)/115m (extended version)
Ratio - Widescreen 1.85 (16:9)
Audio - DTS 5.0, Dolby digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 stereo
Extras :
Making Of featurette, Outtakes, Behind the Scenes on Visual Effects, Star Files, Theatrical teaser trailer, Photo gallery
� 2001, Icon In Black Media