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[whitespace] 'Shaolin Soccer'

Bend It Like Chow: Stephen Chow puts the pedal to the leather in 'Shaolin Soccer.'

Golden Goal

Whatever your threshold of silliness, 'Shaolin Soccer' will test it

By Todd Inoue

FOR MOVIE BUFFS on a first-name basis with Jackie, Chow, Jet and Maggie, get acquainted with Stephen, Chow that is--Hong Kong's favorite comic actor.

If Jackie Chan is the Harold Lloyd of action, Stephen Chow is a lovable blend of Bill Murray and Jim Carrey (and in a serendipitous move, an English-language remake of Chow's 1996 culinary spoof The God of Cookery was optioned by Carrey).

Shaolin Soccer was originally released in 2001 and promptly broke box-office records in Hong Kong and across Asia. It swept the 2002 Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film.

The movie is already set for a sequel. Chow, a huge star from movies like Flirting Scholar, Forbidden City Cop and Cookery, ascended to highest-paid-actor ranking in Hong Kong.

Miramax picked it up, and this is Chow's official American crossover vehicle. This union, however, has frustrated stateside HK film snobs. Miramax sat on the movie for more than two years, shaving a half hour from the original version, dubbing it in English and failing to capitalize on World Cup fever.

The version that sees release this week represents a compromise of sorts: the subtitles are back, but the half-hour slice of film stock isn't. Shaolin Soccer is already widely available on DVD, even through Wal-Mart, which isn't going to help Miramax at all.

All of these delays and miscalculations are too bad, because Shaolin Soccer is a kooky, entertaining movie that deserves the big-screen experience. In America, the hope is to capture the crossover appeal of both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Bend It Like Beckham, yet also attract a wacky Nutty Professor-type of audience. And the latter is where the movie leans most. Shaolin Soccer is its own crazy genre flick: a slapstick, soccer, martial arts, buddy, comedic love story with awesome special effects.

In the movie, a disgraced and disabled soccer coach, "Golden Leg" Fung, meets up with a Shaolin Kung Fu master named "Mighty Steel Leg" Sing (Stephen Chow).

Together, the coach and the Shaolin master contrive a way to get out of their dumps and push their respective agendas; Fung seeks retribution for a decades-old slight by an Al Davis-like soccer rival named Hung, while Sing wants to push Shaolin Kung Fu worldwide.

When Hung organizes a soccer tournament with a million-dollar prize, Fung and Sing see this as their chance at a big score. They recruit Sing's five friends who are long-divested specialists of various kung fu disciplines. They've since given up on martial arts and are in similarly disgraced predicaments.

Iron Head puts up with abuse from a nightclub owner who breaks bottles over his cranium in anger. Fei is an uptight investment banker who smokes too much. Weight Vest is a fat guy obsessed with food who, during one of the movie's many slapstick moments, repeatedly sucks an egg out of a teammate's mouth.

Never has the term "hilarity ensues" been more appropriate. Before discovering soccer, Sing attempts to merge kung fu with singing and dancing to predictably hysterical results. The goalie channels a Game of Death-era Bruce Lee, complete with mannerisms, feline shriek and a yellow body suit as goalie gear.

Shaolin Soccer may look like one silly, silly movie, and it is, but don't discount its spiritual core. The team's underdog, all-for-one spirit recalls Robin Hood, Ocean's 11 and Seven Samurai. The bad guys, appropriately named "Evil Team," are unstoppable androids juiced on BALCO-approved performance-enhancing drugs. And as in Ocean's 11, there is a love interest, Mui (Vicki Zhao Wei), a pizza-faced Tai Chi master who uses her martial arts talents to produce immaculate steamed buns, and later, becomes an ally to Sing and the team.

The movie is bolstered by special effects reserved for more spectacular Hong Kong period pieces. Game sequences feature full volleys that rattle the earth and singe clothing. Sing disposes of a street gang with just a soccer ball, knocking over blokes like pylons. He practices wildly bending free kicks with a variety of CGI-enabled moves that fling goalies into crossbars.

In Shaolin Soccer, Hong Kong accepts the integration of Shaolin Kung Fu and soccer. In America, the attempt is to sell Shaolin Soccer to those who don't get foreign films or soccer--both highly daunting tasks. But the film is quirky enough to succeed--word to Bend It Like Beckham.

Shaolin Soccer (PG-13; 86 min.), directed and written by Stephen Chow, action-choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung, photographed by Pak-huen Kwen and Ting Wo Kwan and starring Chow, Vicki Zhao Wei and Wong Yut Fei, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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