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 V.13 No.24 | June 10 - 16, 2004 

Film Review

Shaolin Soccer

Mutilated and mistreated, this martial arts fantasy is still a kick in the grass.

“Your Dragon-style soccer is no good. I crush you now. Ha, ha, ha!”

Shaolin Soccer

Directed by Stephen Chow

Cast: Stephen Chow

The Weinstein brothers, the heavyweights behind Miramax films, have been steadfast supporters of the independent film scene for decades. Recently, when backed against a wall by their mouse-eared overlords, they purchased the rights to Michael Moore's incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 out of their own pockets. The film will now hit theaters later this summer thanks to several movie studios who are collaborating to release it independent of the Bush-fearing Disney corporation ... all of which makes Miramax's longtime treatment of foreign films all the more puzzling. For the self-appointed saviors of independent cinema, Miramax has treated its overseas acquisitions with a mixture of shameful neglect and outright abuse. Take, for example, the Hong Kong action comedy Shaolin Soccer.

The film—written by, directed by and starring H.K. superstar Stephen Chow—was an enormous hit throughout Asia. (It is the highest-grossing local film ever in Hong Kong and virtually swept the Hong Kong Film Awards.) The film was one of several Asian action films snapped up by Miramax in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's enormous stateside success. The film has sat on the shelves of Miramax for a year and a half collecting dust. Last fall, Miramax started running theatrical trailers and TV commercials. They still didn't bother releasing it. Last week, the film started limping into theaters across America. It could be worse: Other films, such as Zhang Yimou's Hero, Tsui Hark's Zu Warriors and Asif Kapadia's The Warrior have yet to see the light.

It's a real shame Miramax has treated Chow's film so shabbily. Given the right push, it could land itself an appreciative audience. As it is, there are only a handful of Asian action fans who even know of its existence.

The film follows the cheer-inducing adventures of a down-on-his-luck martial arts master named Sing (Chow) who reunites with his equally disheartened “brothers” to form a soccer team. Sounds crazy, but Sing believes a winning soccer team composed of kung fu-powered kickers will be enough to resurrect the sadly neglected Shaolin arts. Sing teams up with a legendary former soccer star known as “Golden Leg” Fung (character actor Nan Tat Ng, who's been seen in more than 80 H.K. flicks) and starts whipping his ragtag team into shape.

Sing and his brothers employ assorted mystical, Matrix-style superpowers on the soccer field, leading to lots of imaginative CGI-assisted scenes of flaming soccer balls, flying players and whirlwind-driven goalies. This fantasy-filled sports film is silly as all get-out, but the fun is seriously infectious. Chow's “anything goes” style of humor—from dance sequences to all-out slapstick—transcends nationality.

Miraculously, the film has not been dubbed into English (surprising since, according to all reports, Miramax had Chow dub his own American voice track). Unfortunately, the film has been hacked down severely. A full 24 minutes of entertainment dubbed unsuitable for American tastes has been cut from the original version. I hate to say it, but it seems almost racist to tinker so flagrantly with these Asian films. Cutting nearly a half hour out of a film because you think it's not good enough for “sophisticated” American tastes, is tantamount to saying that Asians film fans are dumb. Plus, giving American fans a chopped-up film missing much of the subtlety and plot development of the original only reinforces the idea in some people's minds that Asian action films are shallow or simplistic.

Don't get me wrong: Shaolin Soccer is lightweight, guilt-free fun all the way through. Cut or uncut, dubbed or subtitled, it's no Citizen Kane. But that's hardly the point. Chow made a wonderfully funny and imaginative martial arts fantasy that audiences worldwide should be allowed to experience. Seriously, Miramax, if you don't want to release these films, leave them alone and let somebody else do a proper job of putting them in theaters.

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