Released in 2001, Shaolin Soccer marks Stephen Chow’s embrace of CG, and perhaps a marked confidence in the HK superstar in the form of Giant Budget. Part action and part comedy, the movie follows Sing as he tries to make Shaolin, both as a philosophy and martial art, popular and more mainstream. To that end he comes up with the plan to combine Shaolin with soccer (AKA futbol).
This review will look at where the film succeeds, where it fails, and how Stephen Chow’s brand of comedy has made him a legend. There will be spoilers.
This movie is funny. The humour varies from witty banter to slapstick comedy, and ranges from ridiculous and silly to clever and smart, but more often than not it’s gut-busting humour. The comedy is also quintessentially done in the Hong Kong style; witty in a way that requires quick thinking, like a smart alecky, wisecracking kid. Despite that, with subtitles the humour can be appreciated by anyone.
On the other side of the coin, the action is also great. The choreography showcases great imagination in combining martial arts with soccer plays. Just about every single set piece was impressive to look at, whether it be Sing with his steel leg or his brother with the iron head scoring a fantastic goal. During the climatic battle it becomes a unique fight scene that takes place on the pitch, and though some parts may be over the top, that’s the type of movie this is: a fun and zany story that goes all out.
Confession: I love this film, so there’s really nothing I can say to bash it. The only criticism might be that the CG has aged pretty badly, but CG is the last thing a movie should depend on to be great, and thankfully Shaolin Soccer stands firmly on its identity as an action-comedy.
Good storytelling is the foundation for all great films. When a film succeeds at being funny or dramatic or whatever, good storytelling usually heightens the experience. Without it, a film can be funny but forgotten. The best special effects will only make us shake our heads; “awesome CG, but too bad everything else about the movies sucks” (see the latest Star Wars movies).
Although Chow found his success on the basis of his comedy, I believe it is his storytelling that propelled him above the rest. His career as a screenwriter and director and the resulting filmography is testimony to this, but this review will only use Shaolin Soccer as an example. Whatever your story is, it has to have certain things in order for the audience to relate and get on board with. These things usually include a likeable hero and an intriguing plot, which Chow is consistently capable of producing.
On the surface, Shaolin Soccer is about kickass action set pieces, but the reason we put up with it and also the reason why we want to find out what happens next is because the protagonist, Sing, is also a dude with a dream. He wants to see his passion flourish throughout the entire world, and to that end he’ll fight and do whatever it takes. We can all relate to that because we’re all passionate about something. His fellow Shaolin brothers have all moved on in life, some finding more success than others, but the film communicates the lack of satisfaction in their lives clearly; they were all trained in martial arts but have failed to utilize their teachings to their maximum potential. The feeling of having given up on your childhood aspirations is also easy to sympathize with; growing up just gets in the way sometimes. But getting a second chance is perhaps something everyone wants, and it’s what the characters end up getting, which is a feel-good moment for everyone. These positive emotions lie beneath the undercurrent of the story, and it’s what gives the story its charge, making the audience not only accept it in their hearts, but also making them want to find out what happens next. We never want to see our hopes and aspirations fail, and that’s why we care about what happens to the Shaolin soccer team. That is sublime storytelling right there, folks, bundled up neatly in a movie that contains fart jokes and dirty underwear.
Shaolin Soccer is a great movie. Its compact story is tight and immersive, and the characters are all funny and have their own personalities. Whether you’re looking for action or comedy, this movie will be sure to entertain, and the decent storytelling is a bonus too, making the experience all the more memorable. Upon my rewatch this movie may have just jumped into my top five, as I was watching it while I was sick, and there is better medicine (most of the time) than a good dose of comedy.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.