In 2004, director Stephen Chow rocked the world with his cartoonish fusion of Kung-Fu movie and Tex Avery foolishness that birthed the stupendous Kung Fu Hustle. Not to over sell it, but the film was a fucking sensation – just ask Bill Murray, who loved the film so much he told GQ Magazine “There should have been a day of mourning for American comedy the day that movie came out.” – heaped praise indeed.
And yet, as practically flawless as it is – and it really is – there was herald that echoed its awesomeness years before when Chow made the deliriously stupid Shaolin Soccer, a whirlwind, martial arts sports comedy that acts like a magnificent warm up act for Hustle’s main event.
Featuring the same, Tom & Jerry physics Chow later perfected, Shaolin Soccer is an altogether rougher, less polished affair than its lauded follow up, but chances are it’ll still have you rolling on the floor as its relentless stream of jokes slide tackle you to the ground.
Sing is a master of Shaolin Kung Fu (namely the Mighty Steel Leg style) and despite his destitute appearance and lifestyle, he wants nothing more to spread the word and teachings of Shaolin to the world in general to make their day to day lives easier (parallel parking would be a cinch if you could just slide your car in with a focused punch) and he seemingly gets his shot when he is approached by disgraced and lame, former football star “Golden Leg” Fung. Witnessing how hard Sing can boot a drinks can, Fung wishes to assemble a team to combat his former team mate, Hung who now owns the amusingly named Team Evil (hey, at least they’re honest) and so Sing gathers up his former Shaolin brothers who all have since fallen on epically hard times. Despite all having distinct Iron Head spends his day getting abused by his boss in a dive bar, Iron Shirt is a stressed businessman, Empty Hands is essentially homeless, Hooking Leg frets about his male pattern baldness, while Light Weight, the youngest, has become a something of a noticable heavy weight.
While Fung desperately tries to get these guys into playing shape by having them square off against a team who bring weapons to the pitch, Sing sparks up a relationship with Mui, a young baker who uses Tai Chi to make her dumplings but who is blighted with extensive acne.
Team Shaolin, with their superhuman advantage, soon rockets through the ranks, building up the wins to advance to the final, but unbeknownst to them, Hung has got Team Evil pumped with an American drug that grants them outlandish physical abilities that means they are every inch the match for our heroes. With team members droping like flies as the match takes its toll (think the World Cup final meets Dragonball Z), can Sing finally achieve his dream and make Shaolin Kung Fu a force to be reckoned with once again.
It would be easy to write off Shaolin Soccer as merely a prototype of Kung Fu Hustle, but that would be doing Chow’s fleet footed epic a massive disservice. Ok, yes, it does also cast the director in the lead role as a hero who lacks a certain amount of common sense and yes, the movie deploys its broad slapstick with all the restraint of an untrained Sing hoofing a football into the upper atmosphere, yet it truly is it’s own animal as it bravely wades ever deeper into the absurd.
Lovingly mocking the usual tropes of sporting movies and then exaggerating them to the power of 10, the flick stacks the deck against our heroes hilariously high with not a single one of our heroic team even remotely resembling a functional human being. Wong Yat-fei’s Iron Head is the most extreme of these, with a crooked cigarette jutting out of his jowly features as his tyrannical boss shatters wine bottles over his head as punishment (it’s revealed he actually has a wine bottle holster on his belt – genius), he’s an epic sad sack and yet the more indignities these guys suffer, the more hilarious it is. To successfully stifle a laugh when Sing is repeated beaten around the skull by a thug under the mistaken belief that he’s actually Iron Head (who himself is having his legs brutalised by someone who thinks he’s Mighty Steel Leg) is to seriously risk injury as the movie doubles down on making these guys be the under-est under dogs that ever loped through a sports movie.
Despite all the near Sam Raimi levels of abuse the cast takes (they’re ragdolled mercilessly at least every 5 minutes), Chow also never lets the visual style suffer and is sure to stage some grandiose images despite some noticably iffy CGI: watch Sing, now taught some control, repeatedly whalloping the football into a distant bullseye to earth shaking effect, or the sight of the Bruce Lee-esque Empty Hand repelling multiple shots on goal from an entire rival team lined up inside the box.
Of course, even those who will openly watch the movie while complaining about the blatant ignorance of the offside rule will have their mouths shut by the final match which goes full anime and has the force of a flaming football physically rip up the pitch and the sheer impact of saving a goal causing the clothes to rip clean off the body.
Bluntly put, it’s fucking amazing and despite the choice of caricature over character, you’re fully invested in Team Shaolin by the end as Team Evil (love that name) resorts to the sort of cheating usually reserved for Tonya Harding.
Elsewhere, the central relationship between Sing and Mui proves to be just as sweet and yet dementedly cruel as the rest of the film with the jokes about her appearance reaching schoolyard levels of cruel amusement. However, Chow handles all the merciless personal attacks with the same irreverence as the physical ones, drawing out big laughs from stereotypical behaviour (the obese Light Weight goes berserk when anyone breaks his eggs, eating them off peoples shoes and even out of Iron Vest’s mouth) and getting lots of mileage out of Sing being drawn to Mui despite not being attracted to her appearance (her attempted glow-up with pollyfilla thick makeup and a set of shoulder pads that you could hang glide with is hysterical).
Brilliantly silly and endearingly sweet, Shaolin Soccer slams it into the back of the net with confidence thanks to the superior comedic skills of its actor/director that was fully formed long before he started punching gangsters into the air.
Pundits have always stated that football’s a funny old game – but they never could have imagined it could be as funny as this.