Stephen Chow’s directorial output may have since been eclipsed by other movies —– either by the wild Looney Tunes homage of Kung Fu Hustle or China’s 2016 box office champion The Mermaid —— but for me the closest to my heart is 2001’s Blue Ribbon Award winner for best Foreign Language Film, Shaolin Soccer. While a huge hit in China, the film grossed less than a million dollars on its 2004 theatrical release in the US. I imagine it’s partly because, at the time, soccer was this low-scoring sport inexplicably embraced by everyone else in the world to the point they were getting killed in the stands. Who wants to watch a movie filled with that boring nonsense?
Well… had they seen Shaolin Soccer, they would have immediately changed their minds. Soccer would have immediately replaced gridiron football as the number one sport in America. New England Patriots, who? I root for the Revolution, buddy! Rather than getting three whole Pixar movies, NASCAR would be decried as this boring spectator silliness where cars just run around in circles. Not like soccer. Not where the ball is hit so hard that they catch fire, or the shock of a kick can send seismic ripples down the length of the stadium. This is soccer as if it were played by Dragonball Z characters.
It helps that Chow establishes the world as a very weird one, indeed, where former Shaolin monks are wasting their talents in real world occupations that don’t require their finely honed fighting techniques. (Though one fella does manage to avoid serious injury when his boss smashes things over his head.) Out of place dance scenes will spontaneously break out in the streets. A woman uses her balletic kung fu skills to make the best tasting pastries in the city. A very large man can float on the winds as if he were a feather. Rival soccer clubs are women wearing a mustache disguise. Tis a silly place, but one that you wish you could live in. The movie is filled with nonstop silliness in the vein of Buster Keaton: physical gags that bear little trace of meanness or irony.
Chow (playing “Mighty Steel Leg”) has a hare-brained plan to bring the secrets of Shaolin to the general public. This involves assembling his brothers and forming a soccer team. Using their skills, they can show the whole world how Shaolin can be applied to every day life! Unfortunately, the brothers run afoul of Team Evil. And with a name like that, you know they’re not running a food bank.
I rented this movie on a whim while lurking the aisles at Hollywood Video and it won me over immediately. It’s become my go-to when I have visitors over. It’s as if I’ve become one of the monks in the movie trying to bring the mysteries of Shaolin into everyday life. The movie pop in an out of streaming services every so often. If you manage to catch this mystical unicorn of a movie, check it out. You too may renounce all other sports and declare soccer with fireballs to be the one true athletic competition.