Wednesday, September 02, 2009

“I’m not here to fight. I’m here to play soccer.”

It takes some effort to get me to give even a passing glance at a sports film, usually because the plots are always terribly predictable about a team of misfits/losers receiving proper coaching and overcoming the odds to win the big game. It gets old. Soccer, or futbol, is a sport that I just can’t possibly drum up interest in. I’ve tried watching it, and I know it’s a very demanding sport requiring expert reflexes and endurance, but I just can’t get excited about it when Zidane isn’t head butting people.

So why do I own 2001’s Siu lam juk kau (Shaolin Soccer) directed by Stephen Chow? Well, we’ll get there.

A disgraced soccer star falls on hard times and almost twenty years later, he stumbles on a Shaolin practitioner and cleaner with a mean kick. After convincing the young man that he can use his skills for soccer, the guy recruits all of his old buddies, who’ve also fallen on tough times. Under their new coach, they learn the nuances of playing the game and proceed to demolish everyone in their way until they get to the finals, where they square off against the bad guy team, owned by the guy who ruined their coach’s life in the first place. Hilarity ensues for 112 or so minutes.

CharactersFung (Golden Leg): Ng Man Tat plays the disgraced and crippled soccer star. In 1983, he was paid to throw a game, did so, and was taken down by an angry mob. Now, Fung is a broken shell of a man, just fired from his job working for his former teammate. As a coach, he gets a new purpose in life, and that purpose is making lots and lots of money from the Shaolin talent he gets.

Sing (Mighty Steel Leg): Stephen Chow himself as the incredibly eager kicker. What he really wants to do is spread the ideals and practical applications of Shaolin Kung Fu to the entire world. He tries using song (which fails miserably) and then sees soccer as a way to do it. His superhuman kicking abilities make him an ideal striker and offensive player, but he has to learn control. The subplot involves his interactions with a shy, kind, unattractive girl who works at a food stand. His eagerness and ability, combined with the sheer over-the-top nature of his playing makes him the film’s badass.

Mui: Wei Zhao plays the aforesaid shy girl. She’s a shrinking violet who uses tai chi to cook steam rolls, but can’t stand up to her harpy of a boss. Her subplot is about falling in love with Sing and standing up for herself. Once she does, she becomes quite badass. She’s also very attractive, but spends most of the movie under makeup designed to make her unattractive.

Hung: Patrick Tse Yin is the owner and head coach of Team Evil. He screwed over Fung twenty years ago and is now a rich, successful businessman and coach, and a heartless bastard. He doesn’t have an overbearing presence in the film until the end, but he’s hammy and playfully evil, and uses a combination of “American drugs,” SCIENCE and quite possibly sorcery to shape his players into mean bastards who tend to emanate black tendrils of shadow when “powering up.”

Iron Head (First Brother): Yut Fei Wong as the oldest of Sing’s Shaolin brothers, he’s working a thankless job in a restaurant who’s owner has a penchant for breaking bottles over his head. He plays the world weary, “getting too old for this shit” guy on the team, and is usually seen with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.

Iron Shirt Tin (Third Brother): Kai Man Tin plays the bespectacled, neurotic businessman. Harried at work, he masters catching the ball with his gut and firing it back.

Lightning Hands (Fourth Brother): Kwok-Kwan Chan is the lanky, young brother who becomes the team’s goalie and adopts a clearly Bruce Lee-inspired jumpsuit.

Hooking Leg (Second Brother): Chi Ling Chiu is the short tempered, formerly handsome, balding brother who makes an excellent defensive player.

Light Weight (Small Brother): Chi Chung Lam is the overweight brother who can’t help stuffing his face. He’s also incredibly agile and capable of leaping over anybody else. There’s a running gag during practice involving people breaking eggs and him charging forward to lap up the yolk.

Stephen Chow has an incredible eye for visual gags that can go from awesome to absurd. For instance, Steel Leg swings his leg at a goon and stops just short, but the wind from it keeps blowing the goon’s hair for a few seconds later. During the team’s first match, as the brothers are getting their asses beat, Steel Leg is crawling around and manages to pick up a helmet and a rifle and calls in for backup as tracer fire covers the screen. Then it cuts to his coach yelling at him to stand up and he’s holding a shoe and a stick. The movie isn’t afraid of going into the surreal or absurd for a laugh. The action is a given, and suitably badass, but there’s even a brief dance number where a bunch of random people on the street start up in a choreographed routine before Mui’s boss shoos them away.

As far as action goes, its very well done, and the CGI effects are pretty noticeable, but they’re never the focus of the scene. They’re only there to allow the ball to do things that are physically impossible. Slow motion is used appropriately, and action scenes are well shot and edited. The games are really great, and all of the brothers get times to shine on the field.

Stephen Chow and Kan-Cheung Tsang do a very good job at taking the standard sports movie tropes and spicing things up with Kung Fu. The plot is linear, but the characters are likable and the pacing is nice and swift.

Jacky Chan, Lowell Lo, and Raymond Wong all worked on the score. It works really well most of the time for the action scenes with percussive themes. The music over the opening credits is particularly awesome.

So Shaolin Soccer is a fantastic comedy. It fires on all cylinders and actually made watching soccer fun (for me at least). It’s a lighthearted comedy that delivers exactly what it says it will without anything unnecessary or ineffective. I absolutely recommend this brilliant little film. I can’t say anything about the English dub, but then again, why would you watch that?

Beware of spoilers in the trailer.

Why is it trailer for foreign films in the American market always seem to lose all of the charm that makes the film worth watching?

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