By David Mumpower
April 2, 2004
"A modest proposal: widen the goals."
Fictional sports caster Dan Rydell once famously derided the scoring totals of competitive soccer matches on an episode of Sports Night. Dan, do we ever have the team for you.
North American fans of Hong Kong cinema have been clamoring for the release of Shaolin Soccer ever since the Weinsteins bagged the distribution rights. The two brothers promptly began to play a shell game with the film's release, frustrating the zealous fan bases who have heard so much about this title from their Eastern Hemisphere brethren. With Shaolin Soccer's release finally arriving, the opportunity to view the film in all its edited down glory proves to be a sadly mediocre experience.
The premise here is ingenious. A young golden boy of the soccer world appropriately named Golden Leg (Man Tat Ng) is placed in a position to win the big game. As his free kick sails over the crossbar, the overflow crowd at the soccer stadium proceeds to rush the field and give him the sort of beatdown which will be the pride of soccer hooligans for generations to come. The knockout blow in these proceedings is a bat to the knee which shatters the leg, ends his career and leaves the poor kid doomed to a lifetime of limping.
The unfortunate series of events leads to a role reversal as Hung (Yin Tse), Leg's former helper boy, grows to become king of the soccer world. The formerly envious assistant gets a special degree of enjoyment from mistreating his former master, but nothing satisfies him as much as coaching Team Evil, Shaolin Soccer's answer to the New York Yankees. The dominant soccer team in all the land has proven invincible in the period since Golden Leg's accident, and no team of misfit underdogs could possibly beat them.
The venerable crippled man stumbles upon a kung fu master named Sing, played by Stephen Chow, Shaolin Soccer's writer, director and star. The aimless youth has tremendous skill in his chosen martial art which Leg instantly realizes could be translated into soccer success. The mentor and protégé work together to build a team of misfits and outcasts, most of whom happen to be blood relatives. This ragtag bunch includes the normal stereotypes for a large family: the insecure one, the fat one, the mercantile businessman one. And then there is the disheveled cook at the local diner who seems to be the only person in the world with the kung fu talent to match Sing. Mui (the ethereal Vicki Zhao) might need a bath, but that doesn’t stand in the way of true love. Mui and Sing are adorable together despite all the shared soot.
As Golden Leg teaches the individual members to be a functional team, they grow in skill from incompetent to world-class soccer players in a matter of approximately six games. The humor lies in how they get there, and I must admit that one game in particular against a team of cross-dressers (including the incredible Cecilia Cheung in a small cameo) qualifies as one of the funniest scenes in recent cinema history.
Broad, slapstick comedy is a staple of many Hong Kong cinema releases and Shaolin Soccer is no exception. In fact, the closest comparison I may offer in a North American release is the infamous baseball scene from The Naked Gun, only Soccer is zanier and less consistent. The culture clash is dramatic during key moments in the moment as some of the theoretically funniest gags obviously get lost in translation somewhat.
Shaolin Soccer is one of the silliest, most imaginative movie concepts ever. The idea of using kung fu to master the sport of soccer is cleverly implemented, leading to some thrilling moments as brothers team to defeat the sport's incarnation of evil. When the humor works, the movie is adorable. Even better the romantic chemistry is strong. I just can't offer Shaolin Soccer a full-fledged recommendation, though. I am generally a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema but this is the rare case where in the end the movie proves too foreign for me.