Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Shaolin Soccer (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 30, 2004

Directed and written by Stephen Chow/starring Chow, Vicki Zhao/Miramax Home Video

A kung-fu master assembles a ragtag group of his old buddies for a soccer team that applies the principles of Shaolin to the sport. Much ass is kicked.

I know this disc has been out for awhile, but I finally caught up with it recently and was very impressed. After sitting on Miramax’s shelf for what seems like eons, they finally gave it a limited theatrical release earlier this year in a truncated U.S. version. The DVD contains both the U.S. version and the original Chinese version.

At the risk of sounding like a screaming fanboy, let me just say that this movie is really awesome, super fun! I’m very happy to have finally seen this, as I don’t have a region-free player (blasphemy, I know) and it didn’t play anywhere near me theatrically. If you like HK martial-arts movies, consider this a must-see if you haven’t already. It’s not the greatest movie of its kind ever made or anything, but it’s so much goofball fun and so well-done, it’s well worth a rental.

This is the first of Chow’s movies I’ve seen (as it’s the first to reach the U.S. in any kind of “official” release) and I definitely want to see more. Apparently he’s considered some kind of comedy god in China. But what impressed me is how accomplished his work as director is here. I know a lot of HK stars direct their own features occasionally, but I wasn’t expecting him to knock it out of the park the way he does. This isn’t just a “funny movie”; it’s a GOOD movie that happens to be very funny.

And what’s even more surprising is that he gives most of the laughs to his supporting cast. I just can’t picture any American comedy star being quite that generous, especially in a movie they also wrote and directed. There are a lot of original and quite hilarious characters here that I don’t even want to describe, because you really ought to discover them on your own. There’s also a genuine sense of pathos that would seem labored in other hands, but feels completely effortless here. And frankly, sports-movie clichés haven’t seemed so fresh in a long, long time.

I took the opportunity to watch both versions of the film, just for the sake of comparison. Obviously, if you’re only going to watch one version, the original Chinese film is the way to go. No question. But surprisingly, the “U.S. Theatrical Version” really isn’t that bad. Clocking in at a brisk 89 minutes, it’s a breezy, fun little action movie, and much of the coolness of the original remains intact. It seems like most of the cuts that were made (a good 23 minutes) were trims from scenes that remain in the movie, but were cut mainly for pacing reasons. A couple of short scenes are noticeably gone, but for the most part it’s pretty much the same movie content-wise. It’s not like they re-edited the whole thing and made it a completely different movie, so that’s something. This is the version to show your ADD-suffering kids or nephews.

Still, some of the choices made are pretty bizarre. What killed me throughout was that they apparently digitized over all the Chinese writing in the film with English words. So whenever you see a sign or a piece of paper on screen, you read it in English, rather than just have the Chinese symbols with English subtitles. That’s just plain weird to me. Surely they couldn’t have been trying to trick people into thinking they were actually watching an American movie, right? There’s no question that the film is set in China. Not even the slowest audience member could fail to recognize that. I guess the thinking was that any subtitles at all would hurt the film with American audiences (though nowhere near as much as Miramax’s own handling of the release), and it would be easier to watch for little kids who can’t read subtitles. But it just feels wrong, and a waste of time and money to do such a thing.

Yet at the same time, you can watch the U.S. version of the film in Chinese on the DVD. Which makes me wonder why they bothered having a U.S. version in the first place. Who would want to watch the U.S. version in Chinese? The only possible reason to prefer the American version is because there are no subtitles (which is dumb, but a lot of people still hate subtitles, even if they like foreign films). If you wanted to watch the film in Chinese, why not just watch the Chinese version? It’s really strange to have the option of watching the edited version of a foreign film…in its original language.

Any references to Chinese culture seem to have been removed or replaced – but the original version really doesn’t have that many references to Chinese culture in the first place. So again, it seems like a wasted effort. There’s very little in the original that American audiences “wouldn’t get” or would go over our heads. So why bother? There’s one scene that really hurts in this regard – a spontaneous dance number that erupts in the street early in the film. In the Chinese version, it’s set to what sounds like an Asian techno-dance song, and it’s quite funny. In the U.S. version, it’s set to…”Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. Ugh. Not quite the same at all, now is it? Just baffling. Do they think Americans have never heard electronic dance music before?

So obviously, if you’re a purist, the original Chinese film is the one to watch, and kudos to Miramax for including it on the disc. (I’m sure they realized that a lot of people wouldn’t buy it otherwise – but even that’s progress.) Even though it’s essentially the same movie, this 112-minute version feels fuller, richer and more developed. The film’s sense of humor comes out a lot more, and scenes that seemed odd in the American version make perfect sense now. It’s less of an action film and more of a comedy, which is obviously what it was meant to be in the first place. And it’s even more fun to watch.

Unfortunately, putting both versions on the disc apparently meant there was no room for extras. Even a trailer would’ve been nice. But even though I’m against making alterations to a foreign film on general principle, I’m glad Miramax eventually saw the error of their ways and included the original version on the disc. Now the philistines can have their version, and us film geeks can have ours. Everybody’s happy, and there’s no reason not to recommend this disc. Even if you’re just a casual HK-movie fan, you’d be doing yourself a grave disservice by passing on this massively entertaining film.

Original Chinese version: ***1/2. U.S. Theatrical Version: **1/2. 11/30/04

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