After a two-year hiatus, Stephen Chow finally returned
to Hong Kong screens with Shaolin Soccer. Easily
his most ambitious film, it combined the usual Chow
moleitau nonsense comedy with a sports storyline
and special effects. The result: the biggest local moneymaker
in Hong Kong history, and a critically-lauded effort
which took home Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Picture,
Director, Actor and a bunch of others.
Chow stars as Sing, a
Shaolin disciple famed for his "Mighty Steel Leg".
He's inspired to start a soccer team composed of Shaolin
martial artists after he meets Fung (Ng Man-Tat). Fung
was once a brilliant soccer player called "Golden
Leg Fung", but he became crippled after throwing
a match some twenty years ago. His rival Hung (Patrick
Tse) was the cause of Fung's injury, and now leads an
intimidating soccer team with the unsubtle moniker "Evil
Team". Fung's goal is to meet his old rival on
the playing field, but first they have to get a team
To recount the rest of
the plot risks overkill. Shaolin Soccer has immeasurable
buzz attached to it, mostly due to its impending US
release courtesy of Miramax/Dimension films. It's well-deserved
buzz, but it makes talking about the plot unnecessary.
Buzz is all about one thing: is this movie good? And
yeah, Shaolin Soccer most definitely is good.
If it were really bad, then no one would be talking
Still, the film isn't
perfect as it takes a little too long to get going.
Fans of Stephen Chow will most likely be hooked from
frame one, as the film is chock-full of his pet themes
and trademark sense of humor. However, the uninitiated
might find the first hour slow. Fung and Sing first
have to decide to play soccer. Then they have to assemble
their motley band of Shaolin soccer players. Then they
have to train them. Then they have to regain their confidence.
Watching all this happen is necessary and involving,
but it also gives way to lots of nonsensical antics
that can tax the patience of the uninitiated.
However, when the film hits
the hour mark, everything falls into place. Once Sing
and his Shaolin brothers take to the soccer field, all
the elements come together in a vividly original and
exciting mix of Stephen Chow comedy, sports-film clichés,
Chinese cultural oddities, and simply cool special effects.
It's inevitably the soccer scenes that make converts
of those unused to Chow's body of work.
But do forty-five minutes
of ultra-cool soccer sequences earn a film such insane
amounts of praise? One might wonder why Stephen Chow
was given a Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture
award for Shaolin Soccer as it doesn't really
deviate from his tried-and-true formulas. The film has
common themes with Love on Delivery and God
of Cookery, and Chow's string of hits during the
nineties has made HK audiences very accepting of his
particular brand of comedy. Some might even say that Shaolin Soccer is just another Stephen Chow movie.
Well, it is another Stephen
Chow movie. But it's also plenty more than that. What
makes the movie such an achievement is the fact that
it both reflects and reinvents Hong Kong Cinema in startlingly
successful ways. The film features the same "root
for the underdog" attitude that made Chow a superstar
in All for the Winner. Chow's deadpan comic delivery
and precise physical comedy are present. And the Shaolin
martial arts gags and references have a rich history
in Hong Kong film.
But the special effects
are brand-spanking new. The central plot of soccer is
a globally relevant one. Some of the best visual gags
are drawn from the world of video games and Japanese
animation. And the film is specifically constructed
like a sports film with a fully realized set of themes. Shaolin Soccer is the result of an unusual
amount of planning and production, but it also directly
reflects the sensibilities of its Hong Kong creators.
It becomes both personal and commercial, local and global,
and even funny and serious.
Hong Kong Cinema isn't
what it used to be. Special effects have become a draw
larger than most established stars. Action pictures
have become distressingly Westernized. Martial arts
action (and its associated directors) are seen more
in America than in Asia. Even comedies are different
as they've relied less on star-powered nonsense and
more on situation comedy. For Shaolin Soccer to
so successfully reflect the old and adopt the new is
a rare achievement. Yes, it's a silly comedy with commercial
concerns and yes, it leans heavily on the established
persona of megastar Stephen Chow. And it may not even
be the best film of the year. But it is, without a doubt,
the best Hong Kong film of the year. (Kozo 2001/2002)