Mad as a barrel of spiders. Chop sockey CG fitba' antics that bemuse and amuse.
Siu lam juk kau in its native Hong Kong or Shaolin Soccer is one of those films that takes one joke and batters you over the head with it continually for nigh on two hours. It's also one of the rare films that doesn't wear out it's premise, so as long as you liked the idea in the first place you'll be giggling throughout.
The film opens some thirty years ago, with a brow-beaten junior player Hung offering up a bribe to the popular and talented 'Golden Leg' Fung. He accepts, losing the match by knocking a penalty well over the bar. Soccer is apparently taken seriously in HK, as this triggers a riot in the process of which Fung is attacked by baseball bat wielding thugs, his legs broken. He's left a cripple. Back in the present, Hung had been a hugely successful player and is now a hugely successful coach of the simply named 'Evil Team'. Yeah, it's that kind of film. Hung kept Fung around as a menial lackey, occasionally stringing him along with the promise of a coaching job. After Fung devotedly cleans Hung's shoes he asks about the job only for Hung to declare he's breaking his promise, because he's evil. Mwwahahaha! Further more, he fires Fung. Mwwahahaha! How Evil!
A dejected Fung runs into a garbage collector who happens to be a practitioner of Shaolin Kung-Fu, Sing (Stephen Chow, also the director). He expounds on how the world would be a better place for all if people learned the ways of the Shaolin, telling how people would never fear slipping on banana skins, could trim hedges faster and park cars with ease. Well, actually punch them laterally twenty feet, giving a new meaning to the term parallel parking. These are demonstrated with a hearty dose of wire assisted acrobatics and slightly ropey CG, which will soon become a theme.
In terms of the effects, Chow seems to be going for quantity rather than quality as there's rarely a scene that doesn't feature some enhanced effect. Given the fairly meagre budget available to him it's surprising that they don't look far worse than they are, and it's so easy to forgive any flaws in this aspect because it isn't intended to be in any way serious. The intent is comic, and the execution is done well enough that you ought to be laughing with rather than at the effects. Although not based on anything specific to my knowledge, it feels very much like you're watching a cartoon with suitably daft almost consequence free violence at points as though Tom & Jerry has decided to go HK.
Sing's attempt to get Fung to take up his unique brand of chop-sockey fails and the two go off their separate ways, but not before Sing impresses Fung with the power of his kicks by hoofing a discarded drinks can seemingly into orbit. Sing happens upon a stand selling steamed bread, the delicacies made with precise care and skill by a practitioner of Tai-Chi. Her grace is not reflected in her unfortunately acne scarred face, but being an enlightened spiritual awakened guy Sing's looking purely at inner beauty of the lass, Mui (Vicki Zhao). After quite literally singing her praises he barters some food in exchange for his battered trainers and wend his way to a club.
Being an enlightened spiritual awakened guy Sing's not there to party but to find fellow ex-member of his dojo, Iron Head (Yut Fei Wong). Iron Head, along with the rest of their Shaolin brothers have lapsed in their Kung Fu training taking everyday jobs. Iron Head's seems to be a cleaner in the club, but spends most of his time having the manager break glass bottles over his head for some reason or another. Sing describes his wonderful new plan to popularise Shaolin Kung Fu by forming a band with Iron Head. He reluctantly agrees but there debut performance is somewhat disastrous as they're bottled off stage. Being able to sing may perhaps have been an idea, and their dance routine seems to have been borrowed from Hank Marvin & The Shadows.
They take a bit of a beating, as they have promised not to use their fighting skills to fight, for some reason or another. That doesn't stop him taking advantage of violence by proxy, mainly kicking a handy football into their ranks and sending them flying in a frankly silly way. As the whole film is silly this matters not a jot. A conveniently passing Fung sees this display and remarks to Sing that he'd be a good soccer player. Sing decides this would be a great way to publicise the Shaolin arts and the two set about getting a team together.
This tale of convincing the various brothers now working as stockbrokers and so forth to play is the only time the film loses it's way, but it's over pretty quickly once Sing convinces them to go forth and conquer, be confident in their abilities and never give up, yadda, yadda, yadda. Fung begins the arduous process of training them, and despite their unusual behaviour and abilities it becomes clear that they could have something special. Going from a base of ineptitude they survive a baptism of fire against a thuggish team renowned for their application of adjustable spanners to opposition's heads, gaining confidence and then entering into the cup tournament.
While Hung is initially amused by their entrance once they win the first game 40-0 he quickly changes his tune. His attempt to bribe Fung this time fails, so he resorts to Evil Team Plan B - training in a swimming pool and illegal performance enhancing drugs. Performance enhancing drugs with added magic steroids, it would seem. Again - daft, again - that's the point.
The teams are of course destined to meet in the finals, and it's the ultimate culmination of the over the top antics we've experienced so far. Shots tear up the ground, powerfully hit strikes take the form of flaming dragons and the Evil Strikers Evil Aura allows him to fire shots so powerful they tear up opponents clothes. It's a joyously ridiculous climax to a film full of ridiculous moments, and it's absolutely hilarious despite its somewhat trite subtexts of teamwork and love overcoming all odds and so forth.
While films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and undeniably beautiful films and I've no doubt they'll be regarded as classics, but they're terribly, terribly serious. If it wasn't for their sheer quality I might even have started thinking they were a bit up their own arse. There's not even a hint of pretension in Shaolin Soccer and it's all the better for it, capturing a sheer good natured sense of fun that I don't think I've seen since the early Jet Li films like Legend Of Fong Sai Yuk.
I was worried that this might be over-long, pushing some 112 minutes which is a looooooong time to stretch a joke over. It's miraculously escaped being scraped thin thanks to some skilful pacing and a suitable level of frivolous stupidity is maintained throughout. Of course, there isn't a serious bone in this films body and it's as daft as a brush. Some people will absolutely hate it, especially those without a keenly developed sense of the absurd (I think they're called 'Grown-ups') will be bemused by it's OTT antics and sub-par visual effects. Personally I chortled like a thing that chortles a lot for the duration, and that's about all I ask from a comedy. The only thing that stops me from busting out that final elusive star is that I'm not sure it'll stand up to repeat viewing once the element of surprise of the exaggerated effects wears off. I reserve the right to promote it should I prove myself wrong yet again.
Shaolin Soccer is one of the most exuberant and fun movies I have watched in a good long while. It's Roy Of The Rovers meets Street Fighter II. If you've had even the slightest interest in martial arts movies in your life and perhaps have grown a little tired of the seriousness of it all, this puts the joy back into smacking people about and there's not a Milwall supporter in sight. Fantastic.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Vicki Zhao (Mui)
Man Tat Ng (Golden Leg Fung)
Yin Tse (Hung)
Yut Fei Wong (Iron Head)
Kwok Kuen Chan (Iron Shirt)
Lam Chi Chung (Weight Vest)
Chi-Sing Lam (Hooking Leg)