Sunday, August 08, 2004

Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau) - Miramax cut

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

It has become expected, almost a cliché, really, that when someone discusses Shaolin Soccer on the internet,, they must express anger and frustration at Miramax for how that company has screwed up the American release of this movie in every conceivable way. I suppose I could buck this tradition, but I won't. Ahem:

What the hell is wrong with Miramax? I remember seeing trailers for this movie before Spy Kids 2 a couple years ago, and yet they've sat on it so long that the good folks who run the Weekly Ass-Kickings have schedules Stephen Chow movies several times in order to take advantage of its announced release only to see it not come out. They gave it such a ridiculously limited release in April that it doesn't even make it to Boston. BOSTON, fer crying out loud, where we have tons of college students (many of them Asian) who one would think would eat this thing up. It didn't even make it to the Brattle until two and a half weeks before the video release. And the version released? Cut, by about fifteen minutes! Why? I seriously wonder who should be more insulted by that, the American audience or the Chinese filmmakers/audience; this was a huge hit in Hong Kong, but for some reason that's not enough for Miramax to just give us the damn movie that Stephen Chow made.

Okay. Even after all Miramax's screwing around with the movie, the end result is pretty darn entertaining. The action sequences blow past wire-fu straight to Matrix-style flat-out contempt for realism. Indeed, this is easily the most CGI-intensive movie I've seen come out of Hong Kong. Even before Miramax did some work to replace written Chinese with written English in a few scenes, there's extensive digital effects work in most of the martial arts/soccer bits, including a capacity crowd at the soccer stadium that looks just slightly more convincing than a similar scene in The Phantom Menace.

But although we've all seen plenty of Matrix spoofs by now (though, to be fair, when Shaolin Soccer hit Hong Kong in 2001, those would be a lot more current), Chow's are actually funny. He recognizes that it's not enough to just depict something ordinary with gravity-defying bullet time, but that there's got to be a joke there, and that timing is just as important as it is in any sort of slapstick.

The plot is pretty darn close to what you'd see in any sports movie - group of misfits team with an outcast leader to enter a tournament, become a team, and eventually defeat the villainous team that previously screwed the leader over - here, simply called "Team Evil". This is not a sophisticated comedy at all - we not only get "Team Evil", but one of the first bits of slapstick actually involves a banana peel. It is, in fact, even broader than Dodgeball, but involves basically the same trick - spoofing sports movie conventions, but stopping just short of winking to the audience about them. Such mainstays as the overweight guy and the token girl abound, and Patrick Tse's Hung, the leader of Team Evil, is as caricatured as villains get.

It's tough for me to ride the movie too hard about its simplicity, though because, as I mentioned, 15% of it is missing in America (unless you pick up an import DVD; I hear New England Comics sells them here in the Boston area, or there's the link over in the upper left corner). I can say, though, with certainty, that what is left, I liked quite a bit. Now give me the rest.

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