In 10 Words or Less
With Shaolin Kung-Fu, all things are possible...including soccer
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was supposed to mark a new golden age for kung-fu flicks in America (or at least, that's what Hollywood wanted us to believe.) A couple of lame attempts to capitalize on its success and an abortive prequel that still hasn't seen the light of day, have crushed any momentum the genre may have had. But with Jet Li's Hero in theaters and the release of Shaolin Soccer on DVD, perhaps kung-fu could get the kick it needs to re-enter the spotlight. It couldn't get much worse for martial arts films. After all, it's only taken three years for this film to finally make it to America, and its theatrical release was minimal after having several release dates.
Shaolin Soccer is in no way a straight-forward chop-socky movie, as there's plenty of sports comedy, mostly coming from the disparate and downtrodden members of the star players, the all-Shaolin soccer team. The squad is put together by Sing, who's played by Stephen Chow, one of Hong Kong's biggest actors. His comedic ability may not be on par with that of a Jackie Chan, but Chow certainly showed his skill in God of Cookery and is in fine form here, as a homeless monk looking for a way to spread his martial-arts gospel worldwide.
Sing finds his opportunity in Golden Leg Fung, a former soccer superstar who missed a key shot in a national championship game, which ended his playing career violently. His abilities gone, he became the much-abused equipment manager for Team Evil, which is coached by his...well, evil former teammate, Hung. Hung has promised for 20 years to make Fung a coach, but instead, he fires him, his life is ruined. That is, until he meets Sing, whose Shaolin "Iron Leg" presents Fung with the chance to get revenge. Sing gathers his fellow former monks, each of whom has given up on the martial arts, with the hopes of using their abilities on the soccer field to inspire the world.
Naturally, things don't go quite as well as planned, though after some time, the team is rounding into shape. Things are looking up for Sing off the field as well, as he has a burgeoning romance going with a similarly-gifted baker, hidden beauty Mui (Vicki Zhao). If I said anymore, I'd risk ruining the ending, which I feel the trailer does a better job of than I ever could. But if you can't guess where this plot is going, you need to head to the video store to rent The Bad News Bears and Miracle. Prepare to get happy.
Chow, as the writer, director and star, does a good job of creating a fun and exciting blend of sports and kung-fu, with a big splash of physical comedy. It's also loaded with the kind of CGI magic that made The Matrix such a hit (though at a decidedly lower level of quality.) If I didn't know Chow as a veteran of quirky comedy, I'd accuse him of pandering here, attempting to reach the widest possible audience with special effects, slapstick and the world's favorite sport. But having experienced his previous work, I'd say he simply knows how to make an enjoyable movie. I can't imagine there are people who couldn't sit through this film, especially now that the crowd-killing subtitles have been replaced with dubbing in the American version of this film. It's simply fun for just about everyone.
I first saw Shaolin Soccer as an import (possibly a bootleg) about a year ago, and this DVD is a huge improvement over the subtitled mess that disc was. Admittedly, the subtitles on that disc were a riot unto themselves, but I'm certain they created plenty of unintentional comedy. Here, they are, on a whole, much improved, though there are still many errors.
On this disc, there are two cuts of the film, including the original Chinese version, and the surgically dissected American version. The American edition, with credits, clocks in at 1:27, while the original cut runs 1:52, with credits and outtakes. The import version I purchased a year ago is 1:42 long, but has no outtakes. The outtakes on the original Chinese cut are only three minutes long, so it seems this is the most complete version of the movie available on the American market, with 22 more minutes than the U.S. cut and seven more minutes than the import. (Note: the outtakes have no subtitles. Anyone who's watched an outtakes reel knows the comedy is in the dialogue flubs. What good is this reel if you don't know what they are saying?)
There are numerous scenes whittled down in the U.S. edition, especially most non-comic violence. Two lengthy fights (in Iron Head's bar and during the test match) have much of the brutality excised, and two key moments of violence go unseen. Some character motivation is lost as well, which can make some moments pointless, as the set-up is missing. Also, the original Chinese edit is the only version with the complete song and dance routine at Mui's shop. It's a must see. Curiously, the subtitles for the U.S. version hardly match-up with the spoken U.S. soundtrack. There are some additions in the U.S. cut though, as any informative text has been translated into English through CGI, the ending has been re-edited to add some drama, a TV commentator has been added to the SuperCup matches (why?) and there are tons of cartoony sound effects.
Both films are presented in widescreen, and they both have Dolby 5.1 soundtracks. The menus start with a version option, and then under each version there are set-up options and scene selections. The menus are all static with no music and are presented in widescreen.
I popped the import disc in and then watched this new release and the difference in quality is amazing. The new disc's widescreen transfer is colorful (after the opening black-and-white scene) and relatively clean, though there's visible grain, especially during interior and darker scenes. The special effects shots can suffer for this, as the CGI is much clearer than the film, making it stand out. The U.S. cut does a better job of integrating the effects and the film, but it's still not seamless. The encoding for the U.S. cut is done at a disappointing average of 4 Mbps, while the Chinese version is around a 5. Fitting both movies on one one-sided disc has prevented a superb encoding job, but unfortunately, its better than what most people expected, which was getting only the weak U.S. cut.
Shaolin Soccer has good sound, making nice use of the surrounds and bass, especially during the soccer matches. The crowd sounds lush, and spreads across the sound field to make an immersive track. Lines from the main players sits in the center channel, but you get plenty of activity from the rear speakers to give the dialogue better depth than most movies do.
Extras? Is that Chinese for "no bonus features"?
The Bottom Line
As the voicemails I received as college said, "Looking for something to do this weekend?" You could do a hell of a lot worse than this fun kung-fu flick, since there won't be any bored viewers watching, as Shaolin Soccer has something for everyone. The low price doesn't hurt either. One word of advice: if you can deal with subtitles, watch the original cut. You won't be disappointed. There's more movie, more kung-fu and more laughs. Plus you don't have to listen to the terrible remix of "Kung-Fu Fighting" over the credits.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.