As far as martial arts movies are concerned, most of them actually follow a very specific plotline where the protagonist, a seemingly marginal character with exceptional abilities has to become the unlikely hero of the story and defeat a group of bad guys who never see him coming. Why? Well, if you didn’t know who Bruce Lee was, would you really be scared of a small, twig-like guy? Probably not, especially if you have the physique of a bulked-up gorilla. But such guys are usually the unlikely heroes of true martial arts movies and that is a template that most such movies follow, especially if they come from Asia.
Still, in today’s review, we opted for a different kind of martial arts movie – Shaolin Soccer. Shaolin Soccer is a sports comedy about a group of martial artists (called “brothers”) and social outcasts who establish a soccer team and participate in a shaolin-based tournament where they have to defeat the steroid-enhanced Team Evil. Roughly, Shaolin Soccer really does follow the same plot outline as most Oriental martial arts movies, but the twist is that the “protagonist” is actually a group of individuals and that the whole plot revolves around a soccer tournament.
Stephen Chow directed this classic of 20th-century Hong Kong cinema off a script written by Tsang Kan-cheung and himself. Chow also starred in the movie as Sing, who plays #10 on his team. The cast includes a variety of specific characters, each with his own individual personality that makes them stand out in one way or the other. Despite soccer being a team sport and the team spirit being an essential part of this movie, Chow actually managed to give some on-screen time to practically every member of the team, which – in retrospect – was a brilliant thing to do, as it helped the viewer identify with the characters and develop a certain emotional connection towards them.
The plot itself is quite hilarious and extremely entertaining. Chow managed to incorporate elements that are traditionally present in martial arts movies and combine them with a good sports drama – he actually never “forgets” the sports aspect of the movie, which is great – and amazing comedy. All of these elements mean, ultimately, that Shaolin Soccer is both intense, funny and entertaining, which is what people expect from most movies, actually.
The movie as was also shot – more or less – in the traditional style of old Chinese martial arts movies, with specific focus on the shaolin techniques used during the matches and the camera emphasizing the characters and their rivalries. This movie was shot just a year before the FIFA World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea, which was the first time that the competition was hosted in Asia; China, interestingly enough, also participated in that tournament. Soccer wasn’t really the most popular sport in the Far East, but this movie certainly helped make it more popular.
The best thing about Shaolin Soccer is that, despite the movie being a parody of both martial arts and sports movies, it is really, really good. It won several awards and has been praised by both critics and fans alike, even gaining a cult following among the latter, which isn’t really characteristic for such movies. Chow and the rest of the cast did a really good job to make a fun, 112-minute experience for the viewers and we can only agree that they have wholly succeeded in their task.
Shaolin Soccer is certainly a classic of modern-day Hong Kong cinema and if you haven’t seen it yet, we strongly recommend it; you won’t regret it!