Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Directed by
Stephen Chiau achieves transcendence
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-10-03

SHAOLIN SOCCER is the only film about football you'll ever find me watching, nothing could interest me less... yet I still think it is one of the best films Hong Kong has ever made.

Stephen Chiau brings everything he'd learnt working with many of Hong Kong's top directors to his "official" directorial debut, a homage to Hong Kong Cinema and to Hong Kong itself, the plucky underdog that may be down its luck but will one day show the world what it's capable of again.

The mood in Hong Kong was bleak in 2001, the economy was in the pits and people didn't know what the future held for them, you could feel it in the streets and in the cinemas. SHAOLIN SOCCER was a bold, proud statement of confidence in the territory's future and its ability to adapt to the changing times.

I'm not going to claim that this film turned things around for Hong Kong all by itself, or even for its film industry... but it certainly helped.

The film's use of CGI was innovative, and combined with Ching Siu-Tung's wirework it produced something people had genuinely never seen before, an action spectacle so much larger than life it was kind of awe inspiring.

SHAOLIN SOCCER was instrumental in introducing many people in the West to Stephen Chiau, a slick and accessible comedy that relied less on the verbal humour and mo lei tau comedy of his earlier films so that it would have more universal appeal (which still didn't stop Miramax shredding it). Chiau's comic genius is still evident though, his visual gags and comic timing are as impeccable as they've ever been.

The chemistry between Chiau and Ng Man-Tat is a big part of the film's success, and along with Zhao Wei's surprisingly nuanced performance they give the film a depth and heart that make it the most rounded of Stephen Chiau's films. It's a real shame Chiau and Ng fell out after this film, and apparently didn't really speak again until the latter was on his death bed last year.

That the film went on to become one of the most popular Hong Kong movies in the West despite Miramax's efforts is a testament to the quality and the universal appeal of a martial arts sports underdog action comedy.