Man Tat Ng
Yut Fei Wong
Kwok Kuen Chan
112 mins (88 mins dubbed)
Kung-fu football action comedy
Trivia Stephen Chow is rightly hailed as the founder of the Hong Kong comedy genre 'mo lei tau', translated loosely as 'nonsensical comedy'.
Check out Chow's other hits, Fist of Fury '91 (a spoof of Lee's legendary Fist of Fury) and From Beijing with Love (a comic take of the James Bond classic).
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Shaolin Soccer (2001)
18th Mar 05
'Golden Leg' Fung is a disgraced soccer star looking for a team to coach. 'Steel Leg' Sing is a young martial artist looking for an outlet through which to bring kung-fu back to the masses. Can you see where this is going?
Twenty years ago, Fung was a star of the National Soccer league whose career came to an abrupt halt when, after missing a match winning penalty kick, a gang of fans stormed the pitch and smashed his legs up with baseball bats. But the full story is more tragic - the truth is Fung's supposed friend Hung (more like jealous rival) talked Fung into taking a bribe to throw the game, hence the missed penalty. What Fung didn't know was that Hung actually hired the yobs to smash Fung's legs up too, double crossing him something rotten.
Twenty years later Hung is a soccer hero turned coach and Fung is the caretaker who polishes his shoes on command, or at least he does until Hung reveals the true extent of his deception. Fung has hung around at the club all these years on the promise that he'd eventually get to coach a team, but it soon becomes clear that that's not going to happen. I mean, let a crippled has-been coach Hung's beloved Team Evil - winner of the National Soccer Cup for the last five years? Please...
So, what do you do when you find out the last 20 years of your life were a lie? Well it's obvious - get pissed - which is exactly what he does. And it's staggering around town in a drunken stupor that Fung meets Sing, a jobless martial artist looking for a new way to bring kung-fu back to the masses. The plot thickens...
With a title like Shaolin Soccer, it's pretty obvious what this movie is about, but it takes longer to get where it's going than you might expect. Sing (played with good old fashioned Jackie Chan over the top style by Stephen Chow) goes through several different ideas of how to 'sell' kung-fu before settling on soccer, and this provides a good few gags early on - Shaolin rock or Shaolin interpretive dance anyone? It's when Sing and Fung finally agree that soccer is the key that things really pick up.
To build a complete team, the pair go about recruiting all of Sing's brothers. Their story goes like this; all seven brothers were bought up by their master under a strict kung-fu regime at the expense of any kind of actual everyday schooling. After their master died the brothers ventured out in to the real world only to discover that without a proper education they can't get decent jobs, forcing them to take any old job or live like tramps. Shame. When Sing turns up with talk of soccer superstardom, what have they got to lose?
So one by one the brothers fall into line, bringing their specialized brand of kung-fu with them - be it Iron Head, Steel Leg, Empty Hand, Iron Shirt, Hooking Leg or Light Weight technique. It does smack of The Magnificent Seven (or Battle Beyond the Stars, or The Seven Samurai, depending on how cultured you are) but it's very funny. Brother number Two (who I'd like to refer to as sweep-over brother from now on) in particular made me laugh a lot - he was angry about having to peel spuds for a living despite being a master of the Hooking Leg technique and he was prematurely balding despite being young and facially good-looking. That's the kind of movie this is.
Initially training goes badly, but things really come together in their first warm up game as all the brothers rediscover their hardcore skills (it's amazing what a little humiliation can achieve). Then it's off to the final, and the inevitable showdown with Team Evil.
Along the way, however, there's more than enough to keep even the most hardened critics satisfied. The comedy is often a touch obtuse, but it is more in tune with western aesthetics than most of the stuff that comes out of Hong Kong. The CGI over-the-top action sequences are equally excessive, but their timing is such that it never seems boring. And as for action set-pieces, the last twenty minutes is riddled with them - I particularly love the stand-off sequences between Team Shaolin's goalie and the opposition's strikers, mainly for the goalie's Game of Death yellow cat suit with Black piping, and the obvious homage to some of Bruce Lee's famous moves. If you ever wanted to see what a goalie could do with a fist-of-fury technique, now's your chance!
Actually, the Bruce Lee references throughout the movie are like a running gag - some obvious (like the goalie) and some subtle (it's no coincidence that Sing's first battle with the rival gang is played out in front of a villa identical to that at the end of The Big Boss). This probably comes down to Chow – Shaolin Soccer could be perceived as a bit of a one man show, as Chow stars, directs and co-wrote this beauty, and his admiration for the long gone God of Hong Kong action cinema is obvious. But for a film which revels in its over-the-topness, the film never gets lost in the realms of fan boy worship, which is ultimately quite refreshing, and certainly adds to the movie’s replay value.
Anyway, at the end of the day, Shaolin Soccer is a breath of fresh air and is already being hailed as an instant classic in some quarters. It is perhaps too soon to go that far, but Shaolin Soccer is easily one of the best football pictures ever made, second only perhaps to the timeless Escape to Victory.
But given the choice, I’d rather have the Bruce Lee goalie fella than Sylvester Stallone any day of the week…
Versions The original Cantonese version is 112 mins, the UK dubbed edit is only 88 mins.
Thankfully, both versions are included in all their glory on the fine UK disc released by our friends over at Optimum Releasing.