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Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Crouching goalkeepers, hidden malice

Shaolin Soccer

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Stephen Chow
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: Cantonese
Opens June 1 at Togeki Ginza and other theaters

It takes a film like "Shaolin Soccer" to make us realize how polite, restrained and tame today's filmmaking has become. It's packed with stuff you don't want to tell your mother about. Plus, it's clear from the film that the director has a mean personality, and that malice, hilarious though it is here, is part of his nature. Jackie Chan once said that the difference between working in Hong Kong and working in Hollywood is like the difference between being an overworked slave and a privileged king. Indeed, the cast of "Shaolin Soccer" must have fantasized about sticking a knife into the director's back the minute production was over.

News photo
Stephen Chow in "Shaolin Soccer"

Hong Kong's Stephen Chow writes, directs and stars in this mercilessly hilarious film that combines kung fu and soccer, indignity and violence, tai chi and love. Halfway through you're squirming to walk out but still find yourself riveted because, at this point, you just have to see these guys win, no matter how painful, or perish in the attempt. Such a film you don't run into everyday and herein lies Chow's genius.

He drags filmmaking from its high pedestal down to mud level, while grabbing our funny bones and twisting them until we beg for mercy. Chow's tyranny (over both cast and audience) recalls my high-school track coach who habitually yelled: "Do you think I care if you're miserable? [Bangs fist on table.] Do you think you're worth even a drop of sympathy? [Bangs fist on some boy's head.] No! [Kicks chair into wall.] Anyone who's not interested in winning, can die right now. I'll be happy to do the killing myself. Who's first, huh? Huh?" [Cracks finger joints menacingly.]

"Shaolin Soccer" was inspired by the Japanese manga series "Captain Tsubasa," in which soccer balls burst into flames as they whizzed across the field and destroyed goal posts on impact. You will see plenty of that, courtesy of some amazing computer graphics by Hong Kong's Centro Digital Pictures, that chuck all subtlety out the window and go all out for brain-cell-jiggling, visual impact. Balls not only spontaneously combust, they cause hurricanes that envelop the stadium in a big black cloud, rip off the players' uniforms, burn right through the gloves of the goalkeeper and send him hurling into press photographers.

Chow combines these CG effects with low-tech wire action that sends a 110-kg player shooting off into the sky (the ball suspended between his two feet), only to land with a plop 2 cm from the goal. The World Cup is going to seem pretty tame after this, so my advice is to save the movie until after the games.

Speaking of the game, anyone who's ever yelled their lungs out at one will know that the sport appeals to some of the basest, most fundamental instincts of mankind. Its inherent primitive violence gels perfectly with the movie's basic premise: Soccer is war, and all that matters is winning. Don't expect the lofty athletic aesthetics of "Chariots of Fire." Think "Die Hard" or "Mad Max" with black-and-white balls instead of bullets.

Briefly, the story goes like this: Fan (Ng Man Tat) used to be Hong Kong's greatest soccer player but 20 years ago, he was framed by teammate Han (Patrick Tseyin) and had both legs broken. Now Fan retains no trace of his former glory, fit only to run menial errands for Han who's become a bigwig team manager. One day, Fan runs into a street-sweeper who calls himself "Steel Legs" (Stephen Chow) and claims to be an expert in Shaolin martial arts. Steel Legs can do incredible things with his feet, and Fan is inspired to start a soccer team with him and his five brothers, all of whom have been raised in the Shaolin tradition.

At first, it's not easy. The brothers had dropped out of martial arts long ago and are now middle-aged and blatantly out of shape. They are easy prey for rivals who don't beat them at the game so much as just beat them up. But after some brutal beatings, they come back and display their true Shaolin powers, racking up scores like 77-0. Soon, Fan has taken the Shaolin team to the national tournament where, in the final game, they play against the renowned Devils, owned and managed by nemesis Han.

Directors who star in their own films tend to (understandably) be kind to themselves, but Chow makes sure he's super-nice to Chow and no one else. Every other cast member is literally forced to eat dirt, but Chow as Steel Legs remains slim, boyish and cool. His treatment of the other brothers is pretty mean, but what he does to Chinese glamour-gal actress Vicky Chao is worse. She's unrecognizable until the very final scene, since most of the time her features are submerged below several layers of uglifying, skin-disease makeup that makes her resemble some deep-sea crustacean and could send less hardy actresses straight to a therapy clinic. Acting in Hong Kong is not just like overworked slavery -- it's obviously downright hazardous.

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