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Shaolin Soccer
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Aired 6/8 and 6/9, 2004

Shaolin Soccer is directed by Hong Kong martial arts superstar Stephen Chow, who also stars in the film. This is the top-grossing action comedy in Hong Kong history and received lots of attention at the Toronto 2002 film festival, though it's been delayed a long time before opening in the U.S. It's a very strange and strangely comic movie about a former soccer player whose "Golden Leg" was broken by his evil rival Hung and who aspires to coach his own team that'll beat Team Evil, Hung's steroid-enhanced robotic super players.

Chow plays Sing, a down-on-his-luck shaolin kung fu expert who shows off his skills to Golden Leg and gets recruited, along with his "brothers" from kung fu school, to form a team. Most of the movie is about various kinds of comic awkwardness and then also, of course, about melding kung fu and soccer together into an absurd and thrilling ballet. There's a love story too: Sing falls for Mui (Vicki Zhao), a sad, facially disfigured girl who makes buns at a food stand and who also, surprisingly enough, turns out to be a kung fu master. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is where she demonstrates her kung fu skills as she makes her buns, turning bread making into a beautiful martial art. In fact, what is charming about one of the premises of the movie is that Sing preaches the gospel of shaolin in every day life, the idea being that everything can be made better by mastering the moves of kung fu.

Well, there are no surprises as far as the plot of Shaolin Soccer is concerned. The rag tag team-all guys who have lost their self-respect and confidence because life has worn them down one way or another-rediscover their skills and their pride as they train to enter a championship game. Most of what's surprising here is in the humor, the acrobatics, and the detail. It's a movie that really drives home the cultural specificities of comedy too: there's so much humor that I didn't understand, and it's displayed with so much unselfconsciousness.

One has the impression of watching a movie that understands itself as fully within a very successful national film tradition that has not had to compromise itself too radically for a huge western consumer base, because it has a base of its own.

Now that there have been some blockbuster crossover films in the genre, less obviously assimilated movies such as this one can appear and be appreciated even by audiences relatively unfamiliar with the Hong Kong martial arts movie scene. It certainly worked for me, though I would say that overall the humor's too puerile and the gimmicks too repetitive for much over the 87 minutes it was cut down to. If you're already a fan of both soccer and kung fu, no problem, you'll love it-not to mention if you're practicing your Cantonese. If you're an outsider then, well, you'll still have a good time, even if there's lots you can't really understand.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.