My knowledge of Hong Kong cinema is embarassing, limited almost entirely to a couple of one-offs such as Death Mask of the Ninja and Monkey Kung-Fu, as well as what few works have been imported by international superstars like Jet Li and the ubiquitous Jackie Chan. One of the region's brightest stars, Stephen Chow, remained an unknown quantity to me until recently, when a friend of mine ranted at length about the brilliance of Shaolin Soccer. Audiences in Hong Kong apparently were equally enthusiastic, leading to a nearly $60 million gross in that country alone in the space of a month, and Miramax is slated to release the film on these shores in early April. In the meantime, though, Shaolin Soccer has quietly been given a region-free release, available at a handful of specialty retailers online. Despite the reservations I generally have about the quality of foreign R0 discs, Universe Laser has assembled an excellent DVD at a price that's nearly impossible to ignore.
Rhyming rivals Fung and Hung were two of the most gifted soccer players on the continent, facing off in yet another down-to-the-wire championship. Detecting "Golden Leg" Fung's insatiable greed, Hung bribes him to throw a game-winning goal, and an enraged crowd rushes to the field afterwards and permanently cripples Fung. Twenty years later, Hung commands the invincible and rather aptly-named Evil Team, of which Fung is a shat-upon assistant. After futilely trying to take Hung up on an empty promise of a coaching position, Fung is unmercifilly dismissed, forced penniless onto the street. There are certainly less pleasant places to wind up than the roads of Shanghai, and the depressed fallen star soon bumps into Sing (Steven Chow), an equally destitute street cleaner who zealously extolls the virtues of Shaolin kung-fu. Sing swore to his master that he would spread the beauty of the Shaolin arts to the masses, searching endlessly for an inventive way to attractively package his message. With his reluctant brother-in-arms Iron Head, Sing gives a Shaolin-themed lounge act a spirited go, only to be mercilessly attacked by a wholly disinterested audience. A reunion between Fung and Sing after a battle with a gang of soccer hooligans gives them the brilliant idea of, as you could hopefully string together from the title, merging the world's most popular sport and Shaolin kung-fu. Doing so would (hopefully) restore Fung's tarnished prestige and provide an unparalleled avenue for Sing to distribute his message. Sing quickly rounds up his former classmates and recruits them for the budding team, though they've all fallen out of shape and have little interest in this new venture. Just when things look most dire, Sing predictably finds his five brothers -- Iron Head, Empty Hands, Iron Shirt, Weight Vest, and Hooking Leg -- standing by his side, ready to conquer the world of soccer. After extensive training and some rough early matches, the indomitable Shaolin-fueled team catapults itself to the championship. There, they soon discover that Hung's Evil Team possesses an array of superpowers far surpassing their own...
I make a conscious effort to avoid sports movies in general, and I've never been one to seek out romance flicks unless they star Rachael Leigh Cook. I don't even bother with most comedies from the past decade, and I found it unfathomable that a writer/actor/director from Hong Kong could take those three genres, purée them, and somehow wind up with an excellent, highly effective film. The basic premise may sound weak, but the execution is flawless, and I can honestly say that Shaolin Soccer had me laughing out loud more often than any comedy I've seen in years. This is the sort of movie where I feel positively giddy afterwards, and I rush to my bedroom and start calling and instant messaging anyone who happens to be around, just to gush about the depth of my adoration for what I'd just watched. Even though a full week has passed since I last saw Shaolin Soccer, I'm still woozy from the headrush it gave me. Production values are amazingly high, and the effects are often astonishing, if cartoonish and overblown. The choreography in the meticulously-planned fight scenes and soccer sequences are top-notch, and the cast, despite my reliance on subtitles, is excellent as well. You're doing yourself a disservice if you pass up Shaolin Soccer, and even the inevitable DVD release from Miramax this time next year probably won't be as stellar a collection as this excellent, low-priced disc.
Video: The phrase "Hong Kong DVD" probably conjures up images of $5 public domain titles littering discount bins at
K-Mart, discs sporting twenty year old VHS transfers that look as if someone smeared a generous helping of Vaseline across
your television set. Shaolin Soccer is presented at 1.78:1 and is enhanced for widescreen televisions, which I believe
is a first for Universe Laser. This is a very nice looking image, with only a few relatively minor concerns. The amount of
dust and specks is unusually high for a movie that had just wrapped up its theatrical run. Another complaint is that portions
of the opening credits appeared lopped off. This may not have been an issue with the remainder of the film, as none of the
framing seemed excessively tight, but I suppose it's still worth noting. Other issues may relate more to the source material
than the transfer itself, particularly the softness and very light grain that infrequently rears its head from time to time.
By and large, Shaolin Soccer is razor-sharp, and the amount of detail in the image is at times jaw-dropping. Colors
are generally strong and nearly burst off the screen on occasion, particularly when characters find themselves dramatically
surrounded by a screenful of flames. Black levels are deep and inky. There are no compression artifacts to be found, and nor
is there any haloing around high-contrast objects. I'm always pleased to see another independent embrace anamorphic
widescreen, and if Shaolin Soccer is indicative of what to expect from Universe Laser in the coming months.
Audio: Another surprise of sorts is the inclusion of DTS 5.1 audio. Though the lack of a DTS-capable receiver
precludes me from commenting on its quality for the time being, I guess it's nice to know it'll be there waiting patiently if
I bother to upgrade at some point. The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is excellent enough that I don't feel compelled to
peel out to Best Buy and grab the first new receiver within arm's reach. Surrounds are active throughout and used quite
effectively, though the presence of some ADR work is at times distracting. Near the tail end of Sing's first encounter with
Mui, there's an unusual and highly out-of-place line that emerges from the right surround channel, followed just moments later
by a similar shout from the left. That sort of strangeness is isolated, at least as far as I can remember, to those two
instances. There's a decent amount of bass, particularly during the sfx-choked championship game. Other options include a
Mandarin 5.1 track and 2.0 stereo surround in Cantonese. Though the audio's quite solid, the accompanying English subtitles
are embarassingly poor translations. It's impossible to go more than a couple of lines without some sort of grammatical or
spelling error creeping its way into the subs. Two levels of Chinese subtitles are included as well.
Supplements: This is a rather loaded special edition. The most notable extra is the extended version of Shaolin
Soccer, selectable via the white soccer-ball logo at the top right part of the screen. The extra
ten minutes and change focus primarily on the relationship between Mui and Sing, but a few gems are buried within,
particularly the hilarious homage to Thriller. The yellow ball allows the viewer to hop from the film to a total of seven minutes of rough CGI footage, putting those sequences in the sort of perspective that doesn't feel quite the same if relegated to a
stand-alone featurette. This extra footage can also be viewed directly from the special feature menu.
A low-fi 'making of' documentary runs around twenty minutes, though the audio is shrill and much of the featurette appears to have been produced with bottom-of-the-line equipment. Although somewhat painful to listen to, Universe did go to the trouble of providing English and Chinese subtitles. Rounding out the supplements are three minutes of anamorphic widescreen outtakes along with the usual suspects, a trailer, cast/crew bios, and a still gallery.
Conclusion: Shaolin Soccer would be a stand-out entry for any DVD collection. I mean that literally -- the case is about a third of an inch wider than standard keepcases, approximately the width of a snapper. Don't let that get in the way of purchasing this disc, though. HKFlix and TekTickerDVD carry Shaolin Soccer for under $16 each. This DVD is more than worth the price of entry, offering an extremely entertaining movie with a nice assortment of extras and audio/video well above the norm. Highly recommended.