May 2003

Shaolin Soccer

Shaolin SoccerIn a major tournament long ago, Goldenboot Fung (Man Tat Ng) steps forward to take a penalty. Although he beats the goalkeeper, the ball goes over the bar and the game is lost. Fungs leg is (deliberately) broken in the ensuing riot, ending his career.

We jump forward twenty years and Fung is reduced to working as an equipment manager for Hung (Yin Tse), the villainous coach of Team Evil - yes, the villain of this film really does manage a team called “Team Evil” - but not for much longer

Freshly sacked and with no future, Fung meets the penniless Sing (Stephen Chow) who divides his time between collecting cans for scrap, freelance cleaning and the search for a way to bring kung fu to the masses. Sing is convinced not only that Shaolin kung fu is the best, but that it can be applied to every aspect of life.

I have to admit that if I could park a car in the way Sing suggests, Id be a very happy man.

Around this time Sing also meets Mui (Vicky Zhao) who works in a nearby bakery. Despite her severe skin complaints, Sing recognises her inner grace and her mastery of kung fu and the two of them start to establish a friendship.

Fung initially dismisses Sings ideas as being those of a hopeless loser but as he starts to see evidence of Sings raw power - this is a man who can send footballs into orbit and bring down walls with a single kick of a tin can - he quickly re-evaluates his opinion and convinces Sing to form a football team. The national tournament is coming up soon and the first prize is $1 million.

Fung and Sing set about bringing together Sings former kung fu brothers…

This is no small task. Not only are Sing’s brothers are all in less than perfect shape but they are also very unwilling to get involved in yet another of Sing’s mad schemes.

But if money talks a million dollar prize shouts and, just as it starts to looks like no-one is interested, Sing’s brothers turn up for the first practice session.

Once the six brothers’ football skills have progressed from those of a bunch of six year olds to those of a bunch of eight year olds, Fung arranges a game against a local gang that clearly thinks fair play is something that happens to other people.

It is in this sequence that the comedic possibilities of combining slapstick comedy, kung fu and football start to be explored generating some great laugh out loud moments as the football pitch degenerates into a battlefield and the kung fu team are taken apart… literally.

But, after a moment of stillness (ball time!), the tables are rapidly turned and the Shaolin approach to football is proven successful. So much so that the local gang joins the kung fu team making up their numbers to a full squad.

And then the Kung Fu Football team enters the tournament and the film really takes off

With its combination of impossible martial arts action and crisp CGI effects, its probably inevitable that Shaolin Soccer will be compared to The Matrix.

I have to admit that I preferred Shaolin Soccer, its funnier, faster and isnt bogged down by spurious pseudo-philosophy.

This is football as played by superheroes - an explosive and spectacular game in which the ball can tear holes in the pitch, ignite the air and burn clothes from the body of anyone unlucky enough to get in its way.

Although spectacular, the effects dont overwhelm the film and visual humour is allowed to dominate as the Kung Fu Football team progresses through the rounds – their victories gaining them popularity, audiences and sponsorship.

The football scenes are packed with laugh out loud moments, absurd moves and kung fu in jokes, on the subject of which, if youd ever wondered how Bruce Lee would fare as a goalkeeper, this is the film for you.

Stephen Chow is currently the biggest draw in the Chinese box office and Shaolin Soccer is his attempt to find a worldwide audience. On the basis of this film, he deserves every success.

Ambition Withdraw

Ambition Withdraw Filmed over the course of 15 years, Ambition Withdraw charts the history of Tennessee rock band, The Unsatisfied.

This film is also a bit of a departure for me as the films I’ve reviewed to date have all been fiction which allows me to discuss both style and content without any need for separation. Documentaries are a bit different in that the subject of the film exists outside of the context of the film. This is all a long way of asking you to bear with me a bit as I, probably inappropriately, go on to confuse the subject matter with its presentation.

On the other hand, a well made documentary about a dull subject isn’t going to grab a lot of attention.

The Unsatisfied are certainly not a dull subject – a small town band with a huge well of ambition that keeps on going and continues to plug away in the face of setbacks, disappointment, adversity and internal tensions.

With linking segents provided by Chiller Cinema’s Dr. Gangrene, Ambition Withdraw uses a combination of original footage, home videos, concert performances and interviews with friends and family as well as the band members themselves to compile a picture of the unglamorous world of trying to combine practice and performance with the day to day necessity of holding down jobs and raising families. The combination of subject and presentation makes for a gripping couple of hours.

The main focus of the film is front man Eric Scealf who comes across as a passionate yet very down to earth and essentially likeable individual. Watching the film, it is impossible not to recognise his talent and commitment and to find yourself wanting to see him achieve the success that he richly deserves.

Of course, this film is also a rockumentary and, as such, the music is integral to the film.

This comes in two forms, the first is in the concert footage from the various stages of the bands career and is lively, entertaining and does a good job of illustrating how The Unsatisfied have progressed and matured over the years.

More interesting however were the ‘dream sequence’ performances which were shot for the film. I’m loathe to describe these in rock video terms as they go way beyond the sort of footage that passes for music video these days.

The dream sequences have a very surrealistic nightmare quality and are undoubtedly make up the best parts of the film.

The only real criticism I have of Ambition Withdraw is the number of interviews with friends and family of the band. While some of these did add some background to the character of the band members, the number of them meant that we were eventually being told things that were apparent from the performances and other footage.

That said, it’s a great film which provides a fascinating insight into the unglamorous life of a band always on the cusp of bigger things.