Shaolin Soccer Review

When monks and football were last united on British screens the result was Khyentse Norbu’s 1999 picture The Cup. A gentle, delicately humorous effort, the film wasn’t so much concerned with the playing of the beautiful game as it was the watching of it. Shaolin Soccer on the other hand is an even more populist venture, its story centring on a group of ex-monks who adopt their kung fu talents in an effort to help their crippled ex-player coach gain revenge on a former team-mate. With its eye so heavily on the audience, this means various melodramatic tropes familiar from sports flicks: rags to riches success, the triumph of the underdog, and a score with ‘inspirational’ written all over it.

Were this any other film then it could quite rightfully expect a barrage of criticism, but actor/director/co-writer Stephen Chow gets away with it because his is a work that doesn’t even remotely take itself seriously. The climactic match takes place in a tournament called the ‘Supercup’ against ‘Team Evil’ - wholly cartoon-ish inventions which demonstrate the overall mood. Moreover, they are combined with an absurdist, often utterly ridiculous, sense of humour and CGI-enhanced gravity defying wire fu. The latter is especially important, not only for the freshness of its approach, but also because it allows the football to be rendered cinematically without falling into the trap of looking stupid or unbelievable (as with, say, John Huston’s Escape to Victory), simply because the stupidity and unbelievability are the point. This vein of humour also helps inasmuch as the CGI work is more often on a par with, say, that of Andrew Lau’s The Stormriders than it is with ILM’s finest, yet the occasional ropeyness seems part of the gag.

However, for all its goals of being a crowd pleaser, Shaolin Soccer gives the impression of having been more fun to make. On a number of occasions the actors appear to be on the verge of corpsing, some of which even make it on-screen. Indeed, Chow has seemingly put together a compendium of moments that simply amused him with little in the way of consideration for either plot or pacing. The result is that some scenes go on for interminable lengths and prove only fitfully amusing when they should be much sharper. Whilst still hugely enjoyable, the lasting impression is that Shaolin Soccer more closely resembles a rough cut than it does a final product.

Which brings us to the second version of the film to appear on the disc: the Miramax prepared English dub. As many will be aware - especially those who have read Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures - Miramax bosses the Weinstein brothers have a tendency towards re-editing their purchases. Yet whilst this prompts much booing from the purists, in the case of Shaolin Soccer such a make-over could prove productive. Indeed, the length has been curtailed to less than 90 minutes and trims have been made to the majority of scenes. However, it’s debatable as to whether much consideration was applied during the pruning stages as plot points disappear along with some of the more extraneous gags (though many will bemoan the loss of some of Chow’s more eccentric touches). That said, for someone who had never before seen the picture, it is unlikely that any of this would be wholly apparent, and I suspect that the brisker running time works as an improvement. The only true complaints are that this version can only be watched with the English dubbing (to which only Chow from the original cast lent his vocal talents) plus the appalling decision to include Bus Stop’s nineties cover version of Kung Fu Fighting over the end credits.

The Disc

Unlike a number of releases that have included both Cantonese and English versions of the same film, the two edits of Shaolin Soccer collected here both have equally fine presentation. The Cantonese version offers both DD2.0 and DD5.1 options as does the English dub. Given that the special effects scenes are given an aural accompaniment that is equally over the top, the latter option is preferable in both, although the dubbed version is understandably a lesser prospect. As for the picture, both are rendered anamorphically (at a ratio of 1.78:1) and look especially vibrant. There is some evidence of grain on occasion, but this is a minor flaw to a largely agreeable presentation.

As well as the two versions of the film, Optimum have also provided a small handful of extras. The main attractions are a pair of featurettes, one a 20 minute look at the film’s production, the other a seven minute special effects breakdown. The former is the more enjoyable piece and spends much of its time speaking to Chow (although some of the other actors do contribute). There’s no great revelations to be found, but Chow proves as likeable as he does in the film itself, if surprisingly serious, and 20 minutes rattle along at a rapid pace. The only real problem is that the picture quality is not much better than that of a Video CD.

Despite discussing the special effects in the ‘making of’, there is little overlap in the second featurette as this piece merely breaks down the various effects shot-by-shot. No commentary is provided but then the stages are fairly self-explanatory (especially in light of how many SFX docs there have been on DVDs over the past few years). The remaining extras are a three minute collection of outtakes plus an odd batch of animated mini-featurettes that explain the various “moves” of the football players.

The ‘making of’ and outtakes are in Cantonese with non-optional English subtitles, despite being generated by the disc.

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Last updated: 03/05/2018 03:00:11

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