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Friday, April 18, 2008
Blow the whistle on this kung-fu sports flick
Chihiro Kameyama, Japan's most successful film producer, is not a man to miss an opportunity. When Stephen Chow's comedy "Shaolin Soccer" became a smash in Japan in 2002, Kameyama had the idea of joining with Chow to make a Japanese spinoff. Now, six years later, we have "Shaolin Shojo (Shaolin Girl)," with Kameyama and Chow sharing production credits.
"Shaolin Shojo" has some of the ingredients of Chow's Hong Kong comedies, including veteran H.K. comics Chi Chung Lam and Kai Man Tin, as well as newcomer Kitty Zhang Yuqi, who stars in Chow's new film "CJ7," but its flavor is distinctly Japanese — or rather reminiscent of the hits Kameyama has produced for his employer, Fuji TV.
For fans who know those hits, including the films of the "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)" cop-thriller franchise, much about "Shaolin Shojo" will be familiar, beginning with the sprightly, if derivative, direction of Katsuyuki Motohiro, who channeled Hollywood action films in making the "Odoru" films and has made a similarly intensive study of Hong Kong martial arts films for his first venture in the chop-socky genre.
Like the "Odoru" films, "Shaolin Shojo" is, for an action pic, surprisingly bloodless. The action sequences, supervised by Fuyuhiko Nishi, with CG assists, are intricately choreographed and executed with high levels of energy and skill — star Ko Shibasaki trained for a year just to get her fighting chops up to snuff. Compared with the work of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, which they reference, they're tame, though. The cast plays at fighting — or plays for laughs, rather than doing the sort of serious, deadly damage for which Lee was famous.
Shibaski plays Rin, who was sent to China's famed Shaolin Temple as a girl. As the film begins, she has just completed her rigorous training in the Shaolin kung-fu style and is burning with the desire to spread it in Japan. But when she arrives at the dojo of her beloved, now-deceased grandfather, she finds it an abandoned ruin and its students scattered to the winds.
The best of those students, Kenji Iwai (Yosuke Eguchi), is running a small Chinese restaurant with two bumbling assistants (Lam and Tin), and one gorgeous waitress, Minmin (Zhang Yuqi). Iwai tells Rin gruffly that he has quit Shaolin kung fu for good. She returns to the dojo disappointed, but determined to somehow revive it. Her first student is the friendly, eager-to-learn Minmin, who, seeing Rin's superb skills with a stick, asks her to join her college lacrosse club.
Eager to recruit fresh blood for the dojo, Rin agrees. She immediately grasps the resemblance between Shaolin kung fu and lacrosse (both involve sticks, for one thing), but is slower to catch on to the sport's team ethic. Even though she can make balls fly like supercollider-charged particles, her teammates see her as selfish. She doesn't even score goals since her aim is erratic.
Meanwhile, the flinty-eyed college president (Toru Nakamura) observes her every move from his high-tech, ultramodern office, surrounded by shades-wearing minions straight out of a Bond film. How could he possibly regard Rin as a threat?
As par for the hyperbusy course of a Kameyama film, Rin is in constant motion rebuilding the dojo, mastering lacrosse and winning over the skeptical Iwai, while learning various life lessons ("be a team player," etc.). When she finally confronts the prez and his people, she is no longer the lone woman warrior but a happy member of a harmonious, if comically bickering, group.
This sort of thing plays well in Japan, especially with the TV-watching masses who are Kameyama's main target, but the rest of the world has so far remained indifferent — even the "Odoru" films failed to impress at the overseas box office.
If I were the producer, I'd put Shibasaki — who has both the right attitude and skills for action — in real jeopardy, give her a real sword and make her really angry. Then we might see some real chop-socky excitement, instead of a pretty-but-bloodless simulacrum of the same. And Stephen Chow might make some of his money back.