March 16, 2023
1 Hr., 25 Mins.
haolin Soccer (2001), Stephen Chow’s endearingly bananas kung fu comedy, held Hong Kong’s highest-grossing-movie record for three years. (It actually would be Chow himself who’d break it with his next project, Kung Fu Hustle.) You only have to watch a few minutes of the movie to see why it was such a hit both regionally and internationally. Its original blend of slapstick comedy, martial-arts thrills, and the
underdog-centric sports movie has an infectious, charmingly irreverent quality; its flinty running time makes it hospitable to repeat viewings, too — the happy kind where you’re introducing friends to this fun new movie you just saw.
Shaolin Soccer follows Sing (Chow), a master practitioner of Shaolin kung fu who, at the beginning of the movie, is hungry to bring the classic wushu style into the mainstream but at a loss about how to pull it off. (He street cleans and tries best he can to incorporate his skills into his assignments.) Then he meets Fung (Ng Man-tat), a man once internationally famous as a soccer star (people knew him as Golden Leg) whose career ended years ago following a career-ending betrayal (i.e. leg-breaking) by a teammate, Hung (Patrick Tse), who now is the coach of (stay with me) the practically undefeatable Team Evil. Fung is now homeless, sometimes shining the shoes of his nemesis and always reflecting bitterly on a career cut short. He never loses hope that he’ll somewhere find an in to restart it.
The in is found in Sing, who is certain, after getting to know Fung better, that it’s imperative they attempt a mutually beneficial teamup. They should put together a soccer team, with Fung coaching and Sing not only playing but helping imbue their strategy with the Shaolin form. They go after the idea, because why not, and poach team members mostly comprising Sing’s brothers. The goal is to enter Hong Kong’s upcoming “open cup” tournament. The more scrimmages the Shaolin team participates in the clearer it gets that they’re en route to unbeatability, even when faced with the consistently rule-breaking team evil. Everyone else is bringing well-honed soccer skills to the field. Shaolin’s got all that plus special strategies that can make a soccer ball knock down opponents like bowling pins and a goalie who wears Bruce Lee’s canary-yellow jumpsuit from Game of Death (1978) and more than earns the right. They might beat someone 60-0 and that’s an off day for them.
The sealant on Shaolin Soccer’s success is how well it pulls off its climatic game. Though we know, just based on the handful of action-packed scrimmages we get ahead of time, that Chow likely won’t wind up frontloading the best things the movie has to offer. It’s true that he can’t generate much tension: this isn’t the kind of movie that would ever finish up with someone letting opposition literally named Team Evil win. But he keeps us amused with what feels like a faucet compared to all the droplets of exciting martial arts-seasoned soccer matches we’d gotten beforehand. You watch one sports movie about an underestimated team proving itself and you so often have seen them all. But you’re likely to never have seen anything like Shaolin Soccer, and maybe likelier to come to consider it a kind of unmatchable gold standard. A-