Shaolin Soccer (2001)

I was eager to see the Chinese fantasy sports comedy Shaolin Soccer because I’d already seen and enjoyed Steven Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. I think I liked Kung Fu Hustle better, but this wasn’t bad.

Steven Chow (writer, director, star) is a poor boy named Sing who has five brothers and who wants to bring Shaolin martial arts to the masses by packaging it in a unique way. He tries kung fu singing, but that doesn’t really work, and gets him and one of his brothers into trouble with some local rabble-rousers. Luckily, a crippled ex-soccer star is interested in teaching him to combine his kung fu with the game of soccer. Half the movie is gone by the time our protagonist has successfully recruited his brothers, seemingly unsuited for soccer, to form a team. Will this strange team be able to defeat the Evil Team, owned and managed by the cripple’s former rival? Yeah, probably so. And will our protagonist also win the love of the woman who uses kung fu for baking? Yep, that’s kind of a given, too. How do those two goals come together? That’s worth seeing.

The seams between the live action filming and the special effects are generally obvious, but the CG effects are amazing for 2001 and still pretty enjoyable. The best is when the Puma soccer ball turns into a puma.

SPOILERS BELOW, including a detailed plot summary in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for Shaolin Soccer

The movie begins not with Sing but with Fung, the arrogant soccer star, and Hung, the rival who arranges for him to be crippled. It’s a prologue that maybe could have been done as a flashback.

Opening image
When Hung, sceptical, meets Sing, Sing describes how a woman who slipped and fell, a man trimming bushes too slowly, and someone trying to park in a tight parallel parking spot should have studied kung fu.

Setup, theme stated
Sing trades in some cans for a few coins, and then visits a bun stall where he meets the Mandarin-speaking kung fu baker woman, who has a rather disfigured face, and eats more buns than he can pay for. He gives her his worn-out shoes as a payment or promise of payment. Her boss tells her to throw them away, but she mends them instead.

Sing convinces his brother to try out singing kung fu on stage at the bar where he works, but he audience beats up the two brothers when they do.

Hung encounters Sing as he is getting revenge on the bullies by beating them up in what he claims is just a soccer game. Hung convinces Sing to start a soccer team, and the recruiting mission begins.

Debate, Break into Two
We learn that altogether there are six brothers who all used to study kung fu, and who still have strange individual skills. Sing, who is good at kicking, is ‘Steel Leg’, another is ‘Iron Head’, another is ‘Hooking Leg’, another is ‘Iron Shirt’, the one who becomes goalkeeper and wears a Bruce Lee suit is ‘Lightning hand’, the fat one is ‘Weight vest’.

Promise of the Premise
When the team is assembled, they train for a while. Then they play against the bullies that beat up Sing and his brother… and they get beat up again. Eventually they overcome the bullies and train together to enter a competition that will pit their team, Shaolin Soccer, against Evil Team.

B Story
Sing takes his baker friend, who has returned his mended shoes, to look at beautiful women’s clothes in a department store, promising to buy her some sneakers when he becomes rich and famous and telling her she is beautiful. After she decides to go and transforms herself into a ‘beautiful’ shoulder-pad-wearing 80s chick, however, Sing says he’s not in love and just wants to be friends. Then she gets fired because her formerly excellent baked goods become salty and bitter from her tears.

The Shaolin Soccer team plays against and defeats opponents with increasing levels of skill.

Bad Guys Close In
Finally, Shaolin Soccer pairs off against Evil Team.

All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul
Evil Team is also pretty strong, though, because of illegal American drug injections, and the bad guy gloats a lot when he takes out Shaolin Soccer’s goalkeeper with that fiery puma ball. Because of other injuries, the team doesn’t really even have enough players to continue the game, never mind win it. Nice guys finish last?

Break into Three/Finale
However, the baker girl shows up with a bald head in monk’s robes and joins the team as substitute goalkeeper, blocking Evil Team’s goal using her baking kung fu and enabling Steel Leg to score the winning goal.

Final Image
Then we see a city scene in which someone who falls, someone who’s trimming bushes, and someone who’s trying to park are all now using kung fu to solve their problems because Sing and his girlfriend have repopularized martial arts.

Other Thoughts on Shaolin Soccer

It felt like the first half of the plot took up maybe three-quarters of the movie. The pacing was strange.

The baking kung fu was really cool, and it made sense that the woman who could spin a ball of dough or a large pot that was thrown to her from a high-up window could also control the spin of a deadly soccer ball.

I do not understand why it was decided that the baker woman character should first be ugly and self-critical and then get a makeover. I understand her masquerading as a monk to play goalkeeper, but both of the feminine versions of her seemed too extreme.

Though obviously such judgments are rather subjective, some of the humiliations characters suffered in the movie also seemed too extreme. I get that the whole movie is full of exaggeration, but if you exaggerate unpleasantness, you don’t necessarily get humor. You might just get more unpleasantness.

The music at the finale sounds like music from The Lion King. I want to be angry, but it’s so blatant that it just makes me want to laugh instead.
Here’s a page where you can listen to one or the other or both of the tracks at the same time.

The special features on the DVD showed how the special effects were added. Many were done by computers but some were practical tricks. For example, the fat character was lifted by a crane with a harness and wires to ‘fly’, and the crowd in the stadium was a composite of the same small group filmed sequentially sitting in different sections of the stadium.

I was gratified when the dialogue switched from Cantonese to Mandarin. Almost none of the Cantonese made sense to me, so the Mandarin by contrast seemed quite familiar. I wonder, though, how the movie is shown in China. Would people be expected to understand both languages, or would there have been subtitles in Chinese? Does the change in language indicate something specific about the characters’ social status?

Hollywood films use individual words that are foreign but understandable in context, like exclamations or English cognates, just not as often as Bollywood films do. Hollywood films also use foreign languages with subtitles in English to show that a character is foreign or that a scene is in a foreign country (especially if the characters are evil—using another language adds distance). Off the top of my head, though, I can’t think of a Hollywood film that switches languages for no particular reason.

To the extent that movies switching languages (between Spanish and English) is a thing, it sounds like it was a new thing in 2013:

On the other hand, someone in Germany was writing about this in 2008 (in English): Multilingualism in the Movies by Lukas Bleichenbacher.