Up the orient

Al Needham used to doubt that football could take Asia by storm. But then he saw the film Shaolin Soccer and his reservations were sent flying by surprsingly violent monks

Like most people, I fretted about the 2002 World Cup and FIFA’s latest attempt to foist football upon south-east Asia. I knew about the trials and tribulations of the J-League. I remembered the wave of apathy across America in 1994. I worried about the faddy na­ture of the area towards western trends. I was a patronising, know-nothing get, as it turned out, but had I seen one of the biggest films to come out of Hong Kong in 2001, I would have realised that well in advance.

I’d be quite happy to say Shaolin Soccer is one of the greatest football films ever, but that sounds too much like damning it with faint praise. So I’ll just say it’s one of the all-time classics that should be on telly every Christmas and the night before the FA Cup final. Being a long-time fan of films in­volving Asian chaps dressing up as monks with impossibly long eyebrows and kicking each other in the face, I’m biased – but Shaolin Soccer is one of those rare moments when two of my obsessions combine and is the cinematic equivalent of Public Enemy coming round to play Subbuteo.

The plot is simple enough. Golden Leg Fung was the Gary Lineker of his day, until he cocked up during a penalty shoot-out and had his knee whacked with an iron bar by irate fans in a gruesome slow-motion flashback that makes you realise how lucky Gareth Southgate was to get away with a bollocking from his mother. With no Pizza Hut adverts to fall back on, he is begging in the street 20 years later. The nobbling was arranged by his diabolical team-mate Hung, who (in one of the millions of special effects that makes The Matrix look like an episode of Morph) mutates into a modern-day Big Ron, ostentatious man­ager of the Evil Team, who win absolutely everything while he sits on the sidelines cackling. Five minutes into the film and it’s al­ready a frighteningly accurate critique of the Prem­iership.

After a chunk of plot rendered incomprehensible by the subtitling passes, Golden Leg comes across Sing, a Shaolin monk-turned-binman who is looking for a way to advertise the beneficial powers of martial arts (played by Steven Chow, reigning box-office champ in HK) with a ball in his hand about to be set upon by a gang. Then he says: “I didn’t come to fight – I came to play soccer,” and knocks them about like skittles, set­ting in motion an hour of footy stupidity. He rounds up all his chums from the mon­astery with suspiciously football-related names like Iron Head and Hooking Leg, all of whom had fallen on equally bad times (until they make The Paul Gascoigne Story, this is the only football film to contain the line “I saw you collecting excrement and urine the other day”), and they enter the million-dollar China Cup.

I won’t spoil the plot for you (all right, they beat the Evil Team 1-0 in the final), but the special effects create incidents almost as unbelievable as Syl­vester Stallone playing in goal in Escape To Victory. To my mind, the definitive moment is when the Bruce Lee lookalike goalie stops 50 shots in a row – although, now I think about it, the moment when he pulls off a point-blank save and goes through the net, the hoardings and into the terraces is pretty spectacular.

If you were Chinese and had never seen a game before, you would believe: football can be played 50 feet above the pitch; certain players can kick a ball so hard it can churn up the turf; one of the top teams in China consists of 11 hairy women; it’s legal to use hammers, spanners and steroids; and Puma own foot­ball. There are so many product placements for Puma – at one point, the ball is tonked so hard it turns into a fiery Puma logo. They must have been so disappointed when they discovered David Seaman couldn’t somersault backwards 20 feet in the air then make the ball spin on his finger so hard it created a vortex.

Amazingly, despite the obvious appeal and the rave reviews it got in the US this summer, there are still no plans to screen Shaolin Soccer in the UK, so you’ll have to rely on the internet and a multi-format DVD player until Miramax (who own the rights in the west) see sense. Oh, and at the end, Sing gets bored with football and becomes the world ten-pin bowling champion. See what I mean about the Asians and football? Fickle.

From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month