In 1997, when ownership of Hong Kong was returned to China from the United Kingdom, more than a transfer of land took place. Many filmmakers and actors, who sensed the upcoming political change, had already left to pursue careers in the US where they anticipated they would have more freedom to make the kinds of action movies that had made them famous in Hong Kong. These included actors, producers, and directors like John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong, etc. I’m not including Jackie Chan, who had made some American films before, and still makes movies in Hong Kong.
Whether or not this caused the end of the golden age of Hong Kong action movies, or whether the change was inevitable, the result is that recent Hong Kong films tend to be more inoffensive and less outrageous than in years past, and the target audience has changed. Despite its enormous hype in the US, Shaolin Soccer is a prime example of the taming of Hong Kong cinema.
However, this is not even one of the main problems with the film. For writer, director, and star Steven Chow, the movie was a huge career boost, an enormous hit, which proved that he was more than a goofy comedian who knew only how to play clowns. But Shaolin Soccer is betrayed by Chow’s escalating ego and poor sense of restraint – he breaks into song no less than three times, and the movie is at least 20 minutes too long. The film is also hampered by the atrocious translation done by the Universal Laser and Video Company.
The sad part of Shaolin Soccer is how clever the premise is. A disgraced former soccer player, now working 20 years later for the man who set him up for failure, meets up with Chow, a poor but confident man who works as a garbage collector. He happens to have an incredible leg, having studied Shaolin martial arts. One by one, we also meet Chow’s former classmates, who are also down on their luck and have their own special skills. The old man proposes that they become a soccer team and compete in a tournament of the best teams of Hong Kong. The possibilities of combining martial arts with sports are endless, but Chow chose to make a junky Adam Sandler style comedy that can’t decide whether its a parody, goofy slapstick, or sincere.
On top of that, Chow doesn’t bother to develop any of his ideas beyond clichés. I’m not complaining that the movie is predictable (it certainly is), but did we really need to see endless training sequences showing Chow and company slowly improving their soccer skills, that make The Mighty Ducks seem original? All the caricatures are here – the fat guy, the coward, the ugly girl who’s really pretty underneath. The fat guy even spends one scene with potato chips literally attached to see his face, just so we can see what a pig is. Chow continuously cuts back to him, just to make sure we get the joke. I was more embarrassed for the actor than anything else. Despite the imaginative idea at its center, it’s still just a group of ragtag losers overcoming the odds in extremely predictable and clichéd ways. This is complete with “The Big Game” that runs for more than 25 minutes, the dress up the ugly girl scene, the last minute save, and on and on and on…
None of this is helped by the horrid subtitles, which force the viewer to rework every sentence in their head. “Okay… Get lost me.” “The dancers are quitted.” “Why am I going blad?” (bald) The subtitles are so poor, that when he villains are called “The Evil Team,” I couldn’t tell if it was a joke, or if it was simply badly translated.
As I previously mentioned, the movie is way too long. This does not even include the ten minutes of deleted scenes that can be integrated into the flick much like the white rabbit feature on The Matrix DVD. The sad thing is, the funniest bit in the movie is one of those scenes, an extremely amusing parody of the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Recently, Miramax bought the US rights to Shaolin Soccer. The title is to be changed to Shaolin Kung Fu, the film dubbed into English, rescored, and twenty minutes cut. Normally I find this kind of thing abhorrent, but in Shaolin Soccer’s case, it could use it.
The movie is presented in its original 1.85 ratio, and has been anamorphically enhanced. The print looks fine, but the movie has ugly cinematography, so even if the colors are well presented, its not necessarily pleasant to look at. I should warn you that the first time I watched this movie on a 4X3 TV on my Sampo DVE-620, I experienced a problem that I had only seen once before, on another Universe disc with an anamorphic transfer (Taxi 2). Their non-anamorphic discs do not have this problem. I noticed lots of shimmering whenever there was excessive movement on screen (inevitable in an action comedy, you could see distracting horizontal lines in the image. When I viewed the film on a Wega with 16X9 mode, the problem was not evident. This was not an issue with my old TV however, as when I went back to regular 4X3 mode on the Wega, the shimmering reappeared.
There are four soundtracks, one in Mandarin, in 5.1, and three in Cantonese, stereo, 5.1, and DTS. My receiver was set to 5.1 Cantonese, and the mix was extremely aggressive. This is one of the most powerful 5.1 mixes I’ve heard. If you like ambient sounds, whooshing, and other showy uses of your back speakers, this is the way to go. Listen especially to chapters 10-15 and 27-29.
The menu is clever yet irritating. The main menu is nicely designed, with some complicated and repetitive animation, but any time you want to go back to the main menu, you have to watch the same clip from the film, waiting for almost thirty seconds just because you want to go from the subtitles to the featurette. Also, every time you finish a feature, you are taken back to the main menu.
In the special features, there is a section marked NG, which run are outtakes and run 3 minutes without subtitles. There is some interesting behind the scenes footage concerning the special effects, this runs about 8 minutes and can be reintegrated into the film much like the deleted scenes. A 20 minute featurette, which is subtitled, is pure fluff, and reveals more about the movie than Chow was even aware of. At one point he says, “I believe we must have a complex story, only from that will come a lot of different elements… For example, we have a fat guy who weighs 300 pounds.”
The deleted scenes can be accessed, not through the special features menu, but only via the “white rabbit” like feature in what is called the “Special Version.”
Shaolin Soccer is a movie with promise that ends being a vanity project for Stephen Chow. The video quality is competent, and the sound is outstanding. Half of the special features are worth your time, the other half not.