Rock ’em, sock ’em soccer

“Shaolin Soccer’ parodies kung-fu movies with love.

Gabriel Shapiro

Reluctant heroes, impossible odds, brutal bad guys. These are the ingredients required for your typical kung fu movie, and they are all present in glorious kung fu abundance in “Shaolin Soccer.” But that’s not all. There are also tons of laughs, over-the-top special effects and, you guessed it, soccer.

The story is a brilliant send-up of the standard kung fu plot. A family of brothers practices Shaolin kung fu as boys. They grow up, go astray, but not before their master tells them to spread Shaolin teachings far and wide. The brothers grow apart, but one of them keeps his master’s teachings in mind. After a long time passes, something compels this mindful brother to reunite with the rest of his wayward clan, and voila! Let the ass-kicking begin.

At this point in most kung fu flicks, the audience feels a great sense of relief. This is because the fighting (the reason we’re all watching) can finally commence and we can dispense with the terrible acting, fatuous story and the rest of the cinematic chop suey that gets us from fight to fight. Kung fu movies are kind of like musicals and porn in that sense; the ephemeral plot unfolds quickly and inexorably moves the action toward the real reason you’re watching at all.

But it is this aspect of “Shaolin Soccer” that differs from the norm, and works so well as a parody. Surprisingly, it is well-written, terribly funny and makes light of many kung fu conventions. The fights themselves are also altered, in that here, instead of kicking asses, they’re kicking soccer balls. Granted, the balls hit people, break through walls and cause tornadoes, but it’s enough of a variation on the standard fight sequence to be an interesting change.

“Shaolin Soccer” has come in for some criticism for its special effects, but come on, this is purely spectacle. Why not make it superspectacular? The effects are usually well done, and yes, they are so much larger than life that they are unbelievable, but believable got left in the dust the minute you hit the play button.

Stephen Chow is a staple of the Hong Kong film scene, and has written, directed and starred in a number of successful films. But it is “Shaolin Soccer” that represents his first significant attention from U.S. audiences. The film, originally released in 2001, was wildly popular in Hong Kong, and was eventually nominated for 13 Hong Kong film awards, winning six, including Best Actor (Chow), Best Director and Best Picture.

News of the film swept through the rest of the world, followed shortly by pirated video copies and hopeful anticipation of a U.S. release. In fact, The Minnesota Daily first mentioned the film in a January 2003 article. Martin Wong, co-editor of the Asian-American pop culture magazine Giant Robot, chose “Shaolin Soccer” as one of his all-time top five movies when he responded to a Daily poll.

Now, Miramax has released the film in New York and Los Angeles, with other markets scheduled. Minneapolis is, unfortunately, not one, at least for the moment.

That might not be all bad. There have been grumbles from many fans complaining about the newly dubbed version and its substandard soundtrack and voiceovers. Then again, there’s something a bit screwy about complaining about less-than-perfect dub and sync work on a kung fu movie. Isn’t that part of the oddball charm?