Stephen Chow is the sad clown of Hong Kong movies. Over a quarter-century career as one of the colony’s top stars, he would endure any mayhem or, more often, instigate it with no comment but a deadpan closeup. Chow’s verbal shtick, a kind of nonsense Cantonese, kept him from extending his local renown to the international audience until he made this smart comedy about a sport played around the world and found fans to match. His inspiration was to do a soccer movie with fantastic martial-arts spectacle. For American sports fans who find only minimal pleasure in watching men run up and down a field or crumple to the ground and feign injury, all with precious little scoring, Shaolin Soccer which Chow also directed and co-wrote is the game’s antidote and apotheosis.
Sing (Chow), a street cleaner, recruits seven soccer players from his old monastery to battle his rival’s Team Evil. They play an airborne, Quidditch-like game, torpedoing high in the sky to catch the ball and returning to earth only to score a goal, in sensational action scenes choreographed by the great Ching Siu-tung, of Peking Opera Blues and Hero fame. Along the way, Sing befriends Mui (the criminally cute Vicki Zhao Wei), a shy baker with an extravagant case of eczema who shaves her head, pulls some nifty kung fu moves and wins the match, the guy and, in the film’s last scene, the cover of TIME. For a sequel, the star, his leading lady and the mad monks should have visited Keira Knightley’s all-girl soccer team in London. Instead of bending the ball like Beckham, they could have crushed it like Chow.
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