My nostalgia strikes me in different ways at different times. Gosh, that makes nostalgia sound like a medical condition. Actually, in some way it can be something that you eventually need to treat, especially if you let it consume your life to the point that you are stuck living in the past. It is a fine line between happy memories and obsession. On the happier side are the months I spent in Illinois between my undergraduate and graduate studies. While awaiting hearing back from all the schools I applied to, I happened upon an establishment professing to teach Shaolin Kung Fu. As somebody who was introduced to Wu Tang in high school and loved martial arts movies, I immediately enrolled. Hence, when I am missing those days, I like to watch a kung fu flick. The problem, though, is that the majority of them show people performing impossible feats like flying through the air. It can come off as silly to a Western eye. There is a film that takes that silliness and makes it into a comedy, and that is Shaolin Soccer (2001). Because of it, I always wondered if it was the reason my kung fu school had a soccer ball. Anyway, on with the review.
Given a title like Shaolin Soccer, it should not surprise you that years ago in China there was a famous player named Fung (Pu Ye Dong), but his adoring fans named him “Golden Leg.” At the deciding moment of a match, Fung is offered an outrageous amount of money by his teammate Hung (Ming Ming Zhang) to miss a penalty kick that would win the game for the team. Against his better judgement, Fung gives in and is nearly trampled to death by the resulting angry mob. While he comes away with his life, his ballyhooed limb is broken, ending his career. He also does not receive the expected payment, and years later Fung (Man-Tat Ng) is working as a lowly ball boy for Team Evil (not making that up), run by the now wealthy business man by Hung (Patrick Tse). When Fung brings attention to Hung’s promise to make the former star a coach, Fung is summarily dismissed. His life is now completely ruined, and he wanders the streets as a homeless person. Such is his lot until one day he encounters Sing (Stephen Chow). Sing goes around collecting scrap metal for money, but the remarkable thing about him are the incredible acts he can perform with his “Mighty Steel Leg.” While he is not kicking cans into the stratosphere, or using his powers to help society in general, he is promoting kung fu, hoping to find others to train. Sing initially tries to recruit Fung, but the older man remains unimpressed. Eventually, though, Fung sees the soccer potential in Sing after seeing more of the “Mighty Steel Leg,” and convinces Sing to play soccer. Sing agrees because he sees it as a way of promoting kung fu. The first people that he approaches are his brothers from when he was a young man first learning martial arts. He carries a photograph of them to remind him of better days. The problems is that, with a few exceptions, they have all found their own version of better days and moved on with their lives. Like Fung, they are also incredulous of the proposition of playing soccer, but through various means Sing wins them over. They show their support when they all come to the soccer field (which is too generous of a term as it is more of a dirt patch) to begin practicing. None of them know a thing about playing soccer, but that is why they have Fung. Their first round of learning the game is disastrous, but Fung does manage to harness the “Mighty Steel Leg” into an incredible force that is accurate and powerful. Sing begins hitting the same target painted on a concrete wall repeatedly with the force and precision of a guided missile, shaking the earth as he does so. Before long, Fung decides it is time for their team to scrimmage, and he chooses a group of local bullies to play. They proceed to physically beat up Sing and his brothers, not caring much to do anything about the ball they are supposed to be kicking. What this brawl does is unlock the dormant kung fu talents in the rest of them, and they use those abilities to turn the table on their opponents in fantastic fashion. So amazed are these bullies that they agree to join Fung’s team, rounding out their numbers. The forming of their squad comes just in time for a big soccer tournament, the winning side to bring home $1 million. However, it is being put on by Hung, and he has been spending the run up to the games genetically enhancing his players. I think you can probably guess where this is going. Fung and Sing’s team make it to the final match with Team Evil, surprising their opponents along the way. Their showdown with Team Evil pits Shaolin against scientific engineering. Early on, it seems like Team Evil will win, particularly when they knock out Sing’s brother playing goalie “Iron Shirt” (Tin Kai-man). The person who saves the team is Sing’s love interest, the Tai Chi master Mui (Zhao Wei). She stops Team Evil from scoring, and serves the ball up for a kick from Sing so powerful that it tears through not only all of Team Evil, ripping the clothes from their bodies, but gashes the turf as it goes through the goal on the other side of the field. Fung is vindicated; Sing, Mui, and Sing’s brothers earn fame; and society is inspired to apply kung fu to their everyday lives as Sing had always dreamed.
You might expect this Catholic reviewer to talk about the crazy powers on display in Shaolin Soccer. That is not as big of a problem as one might think. To be sure, and this is particularly true of those who practice Shaolin, they believe their “chi” gives them the ability to do as super heroes do. At its most basic, chi means life force. You could point to our souls as being something similar, but they are not comparable. It is also not what performs the miracles. Only God can move mountains. And no matter what sort of miraculous deed you are talking about, it comes from God and not some energy within us. That is the main difference. Otherwise, anything you see in this film has a rough analog in the Bible or Christian history. Instead, what touches this Catholic heart the most is Mui. I did not talk much about her in the synopsis because, as is the case with most love interests, it is not always entirely germane to the plot. Yet, there is something she does for Sing that is more powerful than any kick or punch. Being the street urchin that he is, Sing’s shoes are littered with holes and hardly fit to be playing soccer in them. Seeing the problem, Mui takes them and patches them for Sing. It is a corporal act of mercy, made all the sweeter given her latent shyness and the fact that Sing did not ask her to do so. When I see such deeds, I like to remember that God sees everything, including the kindness done by people who might not have access to the Church. Then again, that is China for you.
Shaolin Soccer is a fun little movie, with some genuinely funny moments. As usual, the comedy is difficult to describe in a review, or at least it is for me. Because of this difficulty, you will have to rely on my assurance that it has some value in watching it. If nothing else, it is blessedly short.