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Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow & Lik-Chi Lee) 2002

    Stephen Chowís Shaolin Soccer is apparently going to be released here in the United States in a few months by Miramax under the more generic title Kung-Fu Soccer. Iím not sure to what degree the film will be Americanized (the company imprudently reedited Drunken Master 2 and Iron Monkey), and Iím also unsure whether or not the film will be dubbed in English for its stateside release. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of DVD, the original Honk Kong version of the film (as long as an extended directorís cut) is available on a Region 0 disc that is playable on most U.S. DVD players for less than ten dollars. Iím not really the sort to advocate seeing a film at home instead of in a theater, but when you canít be certain that a company is even planning to release the original film into those theaters, you have to take matters into your own hands.

   Shaolin Soccer was last yearís biggest hit in Hong Kong, and if I understand correctly, itís the biggest homegrown grosser ever in that country. Itís far from the best film to come out of Hong Kong lately, but at the same time, itís comedic crossing of soccer and videogame-style physics is generally inspired. Thanks to some terrific special effects, the illusion that Herculean feats are occurring on the field remains solid. The variety of bicycle kicks and head hits on display is exciting, and the exhilaration level is only boosted by the world altering destruction that they cause. It can be argued that the film, which follows the exploits of a team of retired monks that want to popularize their teachings through a soccer tournament, offers little other than special effects and sight gags, but the energy level is high, and the film moves exceptionally quickly, always at the pace of a television commercial. The silliness of the plot allows the audience to forgive a lot of the movieís shortcomings. The improbable romance that springs up during the film is one of its off-field highlights, though. Vicki Zhao, as Tíai Chi bun maker Mui, gives a winning performance that emanates warmth from despite donning the worst acne ever, the most overdone makeup since Brazil, and an exceptionally phony bald cap.

    For some reason, I find the antics on display in Shaolin Soccer far more tolerable than those in Jim Carey or Adam Sandlerís films, even though they operate on roughly the same level. Perhaps, itís the blending of digital wizardry with the inherent cultural oddity found in the premise. I think my appreciation might have more to do, though, with the filmís slack jawed sweetness and ceaseless comic resourcefulness. The cast is universally appealing, and everything about the movie seems to be enjoying itself to such a degree that any derision would make me feel a spoilsport. The movie is always alternating between narrative crudeness and technical perfection, disarming the audienceís disbelief and winning their affection. If the actual soccer matches donít exactly provide the typical thrills found in sports films, thatís okay because here the adage that itís not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game holds especially true.

 *** 

03-14-02 

Jeremy Heilman