Shaolin Soccer

Reviewed by YTSL

Ever laughed so much while watching a movie that your throat actually gets dry and your voice becomes hoarse?  This is what I discovered had happened to me when I came out of a cinema screening of Stephen Chow’s first film of the new millenium:  One which is not perfect -- and is in fact somewhat uneven in tone and pacing (plus often way more jarringly violent than one might expect of an offering which is primarily of a comedic nature) -- but really does have some ultra funny moments, scenes and segments.  Here’s also giving notice of this masterful combo of mo lei tau comedy, some high drama, a bit of romance plus lots of action choreographed by Ching Siu Tung that’s laced with lashings of special effects magic being:  A work that gets better and better the further along it goes; plus one that builds up to an extremely hysterical climax in which Vicky Zhao Wei – who plays a Tai Chi expert called Ah Mui -- it is who actually elicits a trio of loud guffaws (even while the honor does fall to the show’s co-director, -scriptwriter and –producer as well as undisputed star to deliver the very satisfying winning kick).

This is not to say though that SHAOLIN SOCCER doesn’t have a really cool beginning credit sequence that is guaranteed to make people sit up and be prepared to be entertained for the next hour and a half or so.  However, immediately after that very peppy start, the film segues into some ultimately necessary but not particularly happy expository and contextualizing scenes involving two soccer team-mates who turn out to be each other’s major nemeses in life.  In brief:  A series of events leads to the not at all nice and rather sleazy Fung (who is portrayed in his later years by Patrick Tse) being able to lord it over the erstwhile great player known as Golden Right Leg (who morphs into a physically lame man who appears in the form of Ng Man Tat), to the extent of the former using the latter’s head as a foot stand whenever he wants to clean one of his smudged shoes.  Although it is rather obvious that the disgustingly prideful Fung is setting himself up for a fall, it still makes for rather painful viewing to see anyone undergoing the kind of humiliation that he so obviously enjoyed doling out to the latterly ironically named Golden Right Leg.
Therefore, it was in at least some ways quite a relief that, after being denied what he thought had been a promised chance to coach Fung’s formidable Evil (soccer) Team, the former soccer hero decided to finally part company with the evil individual who had officially been his benefactor and employer but had really schemed to reduce him to but a broken, heavily stubbled shadow of a man.  And although he initially did not recognize it to be so, it was indeed extremely fortuitous for Golden Right Leg that he soon met the acquaintance of a Shaolin kungfu master (by training but impoverished cleaner cum recyling materials collector by occupation) named Sing (who is essayed by the mega talent popularly known as Sing Jai) since:  For one thing, Sing is an upbeat personality who is capable of raising the spirits of most people; for another, he has an incredibly powerful (right) leg that is capable of unleashing the kind of shots that most – if not all (other) -- soccer players can only dream of; and for a third thing, he manages to rope five of his brother Shaolin kungfu exponents (who are portrayed by an interesting looking bunch of first-time and veteran actors consisting of – in order of seniority -- Wong Yat Fei, Tin Kai Man, Mok Mei Lam, Chen Kuo Kun and Lam Chi Chung) to form the nucleus – along with himself – of a soccer team to challenge Fung’s Evil Team and compete in a tournament whose prize money is to the tune of $1 million.
As one might rightly expect, the best parts of SHAOLIN SOCCER include those segments of the Stephen Chow and Lee Lik Chi co-directed offering that feature Shaolin kungfu trained folk playing – or comically attempting to play and/or harness their specialist martial artistic abilities (e.g., an iron head) to suit the game of – soccer.  Many of these have to be seen to be believed (to have been captured on film) as well as are far better seen than described.  Be rest assured though that it’s not just computer wizardry – even while it’s of a caliber probably not previously seen in a Hong Kong movie -- that makes them impressive but also the sheer imagination involved and combination of such with actual, albeit often wire enhanced, human action(s).  Similarly, there most definitely are abundant low tech delights and low brow humor (including those involving broken eggs and someone’s bald egg-shaped head) to be found as well in these sections together with the rest of this Stephen Chow and Yeung Kwok-Fai co-production.
Alternatively, fans of Karen Mok and Cecilia Cheung ought not assume that just because their names prominently feature in the film’s credits, these two former co-stars of the Chow man will have much screen time in SHAOLIN SOCCER.  For all the early hype about her, the same applies with regards to newcomer Sardonar Li Hui (whose role I think of as being that of “the banana skin woman”).  Even Vicky Zhao Wei doesn’t appear as frequently as one might assume of a Hong Kong movie’s female lead.  Still, I would say that the young actress does manage to make a truly memorable impression in all of the scenes in which she appears, despite the heavy – and far from beauty enhancing – make up which she has on each of those occasions; and I do hope that she will turn up in future Stephen Chow works, if not other big screen offerings.

Lest anyone be in any doubt, SHAOLIN SOCCER is most surely mainly Sing Jai’s show and the HKSAR’s King of Comedy is in fine form in this Y2K1 (northern hemisphere) summer production (which doesn’t require the viewer to be a soccer fan to love it, though I’d wager that it does help for this to be so).  While the movie’s script and English sub-titling could have been better, there should be little doubt that this effort has more than its share of thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully hilarious as well as visually remarkable sections.  In fact, I’d challenge any fan of Hong Kong comedies to not be inclined to say – or at least think -- after viewing this offering:  “Welcome back, Mr. Chow; you’ve been missed – especially around Chinese New Year time 2000 and 2001 -- but boy, have you come back with a vengeance!”

My rating for this film:  8.