Many (many) moons ago, Hong Kong cinema felt like something that wasn't really for me. I was mostly into Japanese films back then and the few Hong Kong movies I had tried had done very little to change my mind. But then came Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau], a silly and over the top football comedy that would pave the way for a whole new arsenal of personal favorites. It's been years since I watched Chow's international breakout hit though and I was wondering if it would still hold up after all those years.
Looking back, it feels almost unreal that a film like Shaolin Soccer managed to land international distribution. Sure enough Chow was riding the Asian wave and the film turned out a tad more accessible compared to his earlier work, but overall it's still a pretty hardcore Hong Kong comedy that caters to Chinese audiences first. Regardless, the film made it into our local theater and even though I'd already seen it on import, I went back for seconds. Sadly, that turned out to be the butchered US version - about 30 minutes shorter, with an altered soundtrack and sporting added CG to cover up a bare butt. Just make sure to avoid that one.
China is quite into European football nowadays, with many of the once-best players transfering to Chinese teams to work up a comfortable pension. Back in 2001 though popularity was much lower, but with Japan and South-Korea organizing the World Cup in 2002, there must've been some buzz warranting the production of a Chinese football flick. Don't think for a minute you'll see any kind of serious sports action though, Chow does it all for laughs with little regards to the actual rules of the game.
Shaolin Soccer revolves around a deadbeat coach (Fung) who one day runs into Sing, a young martial artist. Sing is looking for ways to reinstate the former glory of martial arts and football seems like a good option to do so. He rounds up his former brothers to form a team and together they start training for a local championship. It takes a little effort, but once they find out how to channel their martial arts skills into the game, their team seems unstoppable. The only one standing between them and eternal glory is Hung, Fung's nemesis and coach of the aptly named Evil Team.
On a visual level Shaolin Soccer has aged considerably. The CG is looking pretty horrible, especially compared to modern standards. But at least it's functional (not to mention extremely funny), so it's easy enough to ignore. Aesthetically though there's very little here. Camerawork, lighting and editing are all pretty plain and beyond the fun use of CG, the film looks a lot cheaper than I remembered. Maybe not all that surprising considering the state of the Hong Kong movie industry in 2001, but it's clear that back then the CG covered up a lot of the film's aethetic shortcomings.
The soundtrack is mostly negligable, unless when used for comedic effect. There's a superbly silly dance routine tucked away in there and a duet between Chow and Yat-Fei Wong that's perfect for a few giggles, but clearly none of that is worth listening to outside the context of the film. Then again, what else did you expect from a Hong Kong comedy? For reference: the US version features Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting as one of the alternative tracks, just to give you an idea of how badly Miramax messed with Chow's film.
Acting-wise though, Stephen Chow is at the top of his game here. The man is just naturally funny, even when he's not doing his crazy faces or relying on the extensive use of CG. He surrounded himself with a bunch of familiar faces (long-time collaborator Man-Tat Ng stands out) and included a few fun cameos, but the funniest casting is no doubt that of Zhao Wei, one of China's most adored actresses. Chow goes through great lengths to make her as ugly and unattractive as possible and Wei clearly had a lot of fun playing along.
Shaolin Soccer starts off a little slow. There's some back story to wade through first, after that Chow takes his time to properly introduce his team members. The film follows a clear upwards trajectory though and once the guys start kicking balls the real fun begins. Chow keeps on adding to the weirdness and by the time he and his team mates reach the finals Shaolin Soccer is well in overdrive, servering a bonkers mix of martial arts and football. That final 30 minutes is Stephen Chow at his very best.
It's a good thing Shoalin Soccer is this much fun, because beyond its successful comedy aspect it's clear the film is somewhat lacking. The film's aestehtic is rather plain, the soundtrack quite lame and the plot is hardly worth a second glance. But Chow's infinite charm and wit, a well-seasoned cast and a tight build-up towards an explosive finale make sure that Shaolin Soccer is still a winner, even despite it's obvious flaws. That is, if you can appreciate Chow's peculiar sense of humor. I still enjoyed it plenty, but I'm quite used to Hong Kong comedy so your mileage may vary.