Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau)

With the exception of Escape to Victory, there haven’t really been many films dedicated to football, why is that? Probably because they lack the one thing that makes Shaolin Soccer so unique; Matrix style visual effects and a story that’s so bizarre that it makes sense of the off-side rule.

Golden Leg’ Fung (Man Tat Ng) and Hung (Yin Tse) are the two most gifted football players in Asia and best friends who finds themselves in yet another down-to-the-wire championship. Sensing that Fung’s insatiable greed is his weakness, Hung offers him a bribe to throw the game. The resulting enraged crowd storms the field and permanently cripples Fung.

Twenty years later, Hung commands the unbeatable Evil Team (no subtleties in the name) and Fung is the constantly abused and tormented assistant. Unfortunately things go from bad to worst when Hung tires of Fung and casts him penniless and beaten into the street.

Wandering the streets, the depressed Fung wanders across Sing (Steven Chow), a student of Shaolin Kung Fu, who’s desperately trying to find the right medium for which to spread the word of his art. Sing wants the world to use martial arts in every day activities to better everyone’s way of life.

Fung, amazed at the power of Sings kicks during a fight with some local thugs, easily convinces Sing to form a football team consisting of his fellow Shaolin Kung Fu students. This motley crew include Iron Head (Wong Yut Fei), Flying man (Lam Ji-chung), Iron Jacket (Tin Kai-man), Twister Leg (Mok Mei-lam) and Phantom Hand (Chan Gwok-kwan), each with his own special Kung Fu skill.

With Fung as their coach, desperately trying to form a team that understand the rules let alone kick a ball, the heroic bunch tries to find their feet. Sing has more than just the team on his mind as he meets a girl, Mui (Zhao Wei); a girl who not only is kind-hearted, but skilled in Kung Fu which she uses when kneading and baking breads.

As the team comes together and their skills in Kung Fu speeds them up the football league towards one conclusion – they must face off against Hung’s invincible Evil Team for the championship. Unfortunately this is when they discover that the Evil Team also has powers of their own.

The premise of Shaolin Soccer does sound very weak (and it is) but it’s executed surprisingly well, damn near flawless really. So well in fact that it manages to get away with almost every scene.  It’s one of the best films to come out of Hong Kong in the last few years and unsurprisingly one of the most successful.

Stephen Chow not only does a great job as Sing, but also as the director and co-writer (the other being Kan-Cheung Tsang). He is generous with screen time and this allows the audience to bond with each character completely. It’s a rare thing to be able to blend sports, comedy and action into one big purée that tastes as good as this.

Performances are brilliant and really natural, even when unnatural superhuman skills are displayed. Chow and the whole of the cast are superb, without exception there is not one person who falls under par in the acting stakes.

Another outstanding aspect of the film is the special effects which are stunning. Some of the simplest effects are a joy to behold from Chow’s character simply kicking a ball against a wall (understated coolness that is brilliant in its simplicity) to slow motion rotation effects that would not be out place in Hollywood’s best; we are talking about effects that The Matrix would be proud off.

Simply put, Shaolin Soccer is one of the most entertaining films to come from the Hong Kong film industry in recent years, even for those who are not huge fans of football. It’s filled with energy and joy that makes almost every film about football before it seem like a bunch of 11-year olds gangly kicking a ball around during playtime. With a sequel in the pipeline already, hopefully Stephen Chow can keep ahead of the field and score another winning goal in the future.

Score 9/10

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