Shaolin Soccer Review
Like many foreign films Shaolin Soccer has slowly gained a reputation via the fans of the genre and amongst the internet film going community is generally regarded as the Hong Kong film of the year. Thanks to this 'Internet buzz' I decided to sample the masterpiece that is Shaolin Soccer and I can personally add that it is indeed the best film to come out of Hong Kong so far this year, is easily the best comedy of the year and will definitely go on to make many peoples top ten lists of 2001.
Introduced as a Stephen Chow film it is certainly obvious why Chow gets this credit as he was both co-writer and co-director and also plays (superbly I might add) in the lead role of Sing, a master of the Shaolin Arts whose speciality is the Mighty Steel Leg. As a tribute to his masters teachings Sing is constantly looking for ways to introduce the Shaolin Arts to a wider audience fully believing it will make our way of life better for reasons that are quite superbly illustrated in the opening third of this film. In between pursuing the use of song (with quite hilarious results!) to introduce the Shaolin Arts to the public Sing is eventually spotted by a down and out football coach, Fung, who believes that by using Sings' Shaolin skills he can craft a winning football team that he can use to settle a score with an old rival (who is also the manager of the Championship winning football team in China). Enlisting the help of his Shaolin brothers (all of whom have their own skills) Sing and Fung create their own team to play in the National Football Championships, Sing wants to stun the world with the Shaolin Arts while Fung wants to beat his old rivals team (who are quite aptly named the 'Evil Team').
Shaolin Soccer is for the most part a comedy with the most obvious jokes stemming from Chow and his team who, with the exception of Stephen Chow, barely look like football players let alone masters of the Shaolin Arts! By using a mixture of both intelligent and outright slapstick styles of humour Chow and friends will keep you laughing throughout while the myriad of film spoofs and the inspired tributes to Bruce Lee require repeated viewings to truly appreciate their genius. In between the creation of their Shaolin Team and going on to play in the football championships Chow finds time for a love interest in the form of Vicki Zhao Wei (who plays Mui) and while the chemistry is there her part is slightly under-developed but none-the-less serves its purpose for the story as a whole. What you will really take delight in though are the myriad of stunning football based sequences (and for those of you out there who are much like myself and not the biggest fan of football fret not, you need not be to enjoy these sequences) that work on so many levels that I absolutely guarantee a smile on the face of even the most jilted cinema goer! Football fans be warned though as after the stunning final showdown with the Evil Team who, with the aid of some pretty impressive drugs, make for a formidable opponent against the Shaolin Team, you will find it very hard to go back to watching the traditional form of your favourite game!
While the concept alone is intriguing it is the fusion of a superbly crafted script, outstanding performances from every major player, a riveting musical score and the stunning (and again, inspired) use of Computer Graphics that allows this film to simply laugh in the face of the feeble attempts of recent Hollywood blockbusters! Why you ask, well it is because Shaolin Soccer is so astoundingly original and so beautifully executed that it still appears fresh on the tenth sitting and I am sure will remain so beyond the point that I wear out my disc!
This R0 DVD can be bought from any number of Hong Kong based retailers including DDDHouse for the very reasonable outlay of around £10.
For a film that was released onto DVD mere weeks after it finished its Theatrical run you would expect at the very least a flawless print now wouldn't you? Well, this is Hong Kong DVD after all and while Universe have provided us with a very rare yet highly commendable Anamorphic transfer (maintaining the original 1:85:1 aspect ratio and adding an excellent boost in the detail levels) they sadly have not managed to use a pristine print. Fortunately there is nothing here that should put you off making what is an essential purchase, sure the odd speck of grit crops up here and there and at worst you will see some fairly large white specs but none of this is distracting enough to cause you any major concerns. Moving past the minor print damage present you will find an image that while occasionally lacking in clarity (leading to a soft focus) is for the most part extremely crisp with fantastic colour definition and superb black level reproduction while grain is surprisingly minimal (for a Hong Kong film this is another rarity).
Note: When played via my Widescreen TV for a brief moment both the opening credits and the music sequence (in the bar) are poorly framed with both horizontal and vertical information cut off to an extent that it is noticeable yet when played via my DVDRom and Monitor no such framing issues were present.
In what is becoming a strong point on R0 Hong Kong DVDs Shaolin Soccer features both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks for the original Cantonese language with an additional DD2.0 Cantonese track and a Mandarin DD5.1 track for those that require them. Most of you will opt for either of the DD5.1 or DTS Cantonese audio tracks and no matter which of these you choose you will experience one of the best Hong Kong Audio tracks yet heard on any DVD. Audio throughout is both clean and crisp with dialogue clearly presented via the centre speaker while general background noise and the superb soundtrack are generated accurately throughout the soundstage. Where this track really comes into its own is within any of the fantastic football sequences, here you will experience the entire Dolby Digital/DTS experience with pans and all manner of directional affects taking place while your sub will get a superb workout - be sure and crank this one up! The ongoing argument of Dolby Digital vs DTS continues afoot here and yet again I will side with the DTS iteration as it provides crisper separation, a more natural sound and best of all a generally higher level of recording that not only increases the volume but gives a better overall feel to the proceedings. Of course for those who cannot utilise the DTS track just crank up the dial on the DD5.1 track and you will still be treated to an outstanding aural experience.
The included English subtitles are presented in an easy to read white font and for the most part are very good although occasionally viewers will find the grammatical style to be a tad difficult to follow and the occasional mistranslation can lead to jokes going by unnoticed. One example of this would be how Sixth Small Brother is given the name of 'Weight Vest' when in-fact it should be 'Weightless Vest' - a joke that is pulled off successfully via the visuals but due to the subs we lose a little of the spoken humour. Still the faults in the translation, grammar and spelling mistakes (which add to the humour themselves!) are not to the extent where they will cause any seasoned foreign film viewer problems although the uninitiated may find them a little annoying to begin with.
Note: A small encoding fault occurred on my DVD player (Pioneer 626) whereby the few times when subtitles AND the Shaolin symbol (see the Extras section) were meant to be onscreen at the same time I simply saw nothing and to read the subtitles for those brief moments required me to rewind the film slightly, this fault did not occur on either a Toshiba 2109 or my DVD-Rom.
Before I delve into the actual Extra Features of this disc I have to mention the Menu system that, for a Hong Kong disc is quite superb. After a shaky start where choosing DTS sound leads to a DTS trailer lacking any sound whatsoever we are led into a fully animated menu system that is great to look at and works very well. My only gripes with this menu system is that occasionally it can become laborious to navigate back and forth between screens as the opening animation is repeated every time you return to the main screen. Apart from this small fault then you are seeing a new standard for Hong Kong R0 discs!
From the Main Menu you will notice an option entitled 'Special Version'. Reading the screen of text this leads to (there is an English option included) you will discover that when watching the film a Shaolin Soccer symbol will occasionally appear and when it does you can press the Enter button on your remote to activate either an additional scene from the Directors Cut (for the White Shaolin Symbol) or a Behind-the-scenes sequence (for the Yellow Shaolin Symbol) that looks at the Effects used throughout the film. Working very much like The Matrix Follow-the-white-rabbit special feature this is another milestone in Hong Kong R0 DVD production and for the most part works particularly well. This special feature is only available when viewing the film in the Cantonese language and as it turns out the symbols appear as part of the subtitle tracks so the only way to turn these symbols off is to turn off ALL subtitles. Sadly this would appear to be a design oversight but fortunately the symbols never prove that distracting when you simply want to watch the film as for the most part you will be so engrossed that you will more than likely not even notice them.
Going beyond the implementation let me give you a brief rundown of the 3 additional scenes that make up the Directors Cut (and are notified to us via the White Shaolin Soccer symbol). These scenes fall at the start of various chapters allowing you to seek them out quite easily. The first of these additional scenes occurs around Chapter 7 (when Sing places his trainers on Muis' table) and sees a 'Bollywood' style dance sequence that is both inspired, hilarious and of a quality I have not seen for far too long in films! At the beginning of Chapter 23 (as Sing goes to speak with Mui) you will find the second additional scene that features some extended dialogue between Stephen Chow and Vicki Zhao Wei. Mostly comedic in tone it does also become slightly cruel but of course another fantastic film spoof (The Matrix on this occasion) more than makes up for this while the scene as a whole gives the only weak point of Shaolin Soccer (the under-developed love story) a greater continuity. Finally Chapter 35 (as the end credits roll) features an Outtake Reel that you can also find in the Extra Features menu, the main difference here is that when viewed within the film the goofs are subtitled making it all the more amusing for the Non-Chinese speaking viewer.
Also available from the Main Menu is the original Theatrical Trailer that is presented in Non-Anamorphic 1:85:1 Widescreen and although it only runs for 50 seconds it is quite easily the best trailer I have seen in far too long as it eschews the 'explain the story in two minutes' style for 'lets wow the pants off our viewers' and of course it works by making you want to see the film (even if you have already seen it!).
In the Special Features section of the disc you will find a small selection of interesting extra features including brief but interesting biographies for Stephen Chow, Vicki Zhao Wei and Ng Man Tat, all of which are available in both Chinese and English languages (just push ‘right’ to select the English name of the actor). Moving on you will find a 20-minute Making of Featurette that is kindly presented with optional English subtitles and features enough behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the stars (including Vicki Zhao Wei who looks fantastic sans her characters make-up) and background information to make this featurette worthy of your time. A 38-picture Photo Gallery mostly consists of stills from the film but they look so great I think I will let this slide while the NG Footage (outtakes to you and me) is presented as a stand-alone extra feature but sadly lacks any subtitles so you are better off viewing them as part of the Directors Cut. Finally we are given the option of viewing the 'Special Effects Making Of' footage in one 8-minute sequence rather than skipping to it throughout the film (via the yellow Shaolin Soccer symbol). This footage features no narration or interviews but is fairly self-explanatory and takes the familiar route of showcasing the finished scene and then breaking it down into the various plates (CG Shots, Live action shots etc) so you can see exactly how the various effects work was achieved.
Stephen Chow is a comic genius and this film is a rare treat that simply must be enjoyed, and will be enjoyed, by all! When you have a DVD that does a great job in presenting the film at a fantastic price you would be mad to pass this one by.