References to Chow as "The Asian Jim Carrey" have always been deceptive. Early in the '90s, the two stars enjoyed analogous degrees of success in their respective industries, but represented diametrically opposed schools of comedy. Chow's low-key absurdity actually has no equivalent anywhere in American movies--it's a style that blends broad slapstick with clever verbal jousting, most of which unfortunately doesn't translate outside of Cantonese. Fortunately for non-Cantonese speakers, "Shaolin Soccer" has no such limitations.
A simple but efficiently told satire of two revered genres from opposing sides of the Pacific--the Kung Fu tournament film and the underdog sports film--"Shaolin Soccer" features Chow as a passionate Kung Fu vagrant named Sing who teams with disgraced former soccer star "Golden Leg" Fung (Man Tat Ng) to assemble a team comprised of washed-up martial arts experts and whip them into shape. Their aim is to win the $1 million prize in a whirlwind soccer tournament, though neither is really all that interested in the money. For Sing, a victory would show the world the worth of his precious Kung Fu. For Fung, it would mean nothing less than redemption, a chance to avenge his fall by defeating the highly favored team owned by his arch-nemesis and former teammate Hung (Tse Yin).
In recognizing that Kung Fu tournament films and American underdog sports films are essentially doing the same thing, Chow, who also wrote and directed the picture, has manufactured a double-sided spoof well-suited to enthrall fans of both. And with the aid of legendary action director Ching Siu-Tung--the wizard behind the action of "A Chinese Ghost Story"--the concept is realized to its fullest. Though the comedy is admittedly broad (even broader than the "Austin Powers" films) with soccer scenes that rely heavily on wirework and digital effects, the net result is too endearing to dismiss on any account. The early going is a bit slow by Hollywood standards, with a romantic subplot between Chow and a disfigured street vendor played by Vicki Zhao Wei that takes more work than it should to get started, but things wrap up in grand fashion by the picture's final third, arguably among the funniest stretches of any movie--American or foreign--in years.
Sadly, as they have with so many other Hong Kong hits, distributor Miramax has seen fit to tinker once again with a product that needed no tinkering. The American release of "Shaolin Soccer" is dubbed--significantly cheapening the overall feel of the piece--with more than 15 minutes of material needlessly chopped out. Most of the cuts are simply superfluous trims, but the deletion of the movie's original prologue in its entirety borders on unfathomable stupidity. Less offensive though no less objectionable is the replacement of the original (and far superior) credit sequence as well as the addition of yet another cover of "Kung Fu Fighting" at the picture's conclusion. This marks at least the third time that Miramax alone have resorted to this tired tactic, clearly demonstrating that while they appreciate the appeal of Hong Kong films in the United States, they remain mired in a mentality that ultimately respects neither the films nor their audience, preferring to continue viewing them both through the racist filter of '70s era "Chopsocky" fare.
Fortunately, the picture is good enough to withstand the Miramax mistreatment. And, if that's still not good enough for purists, there's always the import DVD of the original cut--available, as it happens, for little more than the price of a single movie admission. Starring Stephen Chow, Vicki Zhao Wei, Ng Man Tat, Karen Mok, Patrick Tse Yin and Wong Yat Fei. Directed by Stephen Chow. Written by Stephen Chow and Daniel Tsang Kan Cheong. Produced by Yeung Kwok Fai. A Miramax release. Comedy. English-dubbed. Rated PG for martial arts action and some thematic elements. Running time: 88 min