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Early ’80s, Southern California: I’m nine years old and running down a soccer pitch as the blazing sun beats down on my small head. Like thousands of other kids across the country, I’m part of the American AYSO movement: my weekends are all homemade team banners and eternally frustrated coaches. And even though I love playing, I can’t help myself—my mind inevitably wanders to thoughts of comic books, what KISS look like without their makeup, and to Kung-Fu Theater on Channel 9. All of these things run together in one pee-wee stream-of-consciousness until I eventually snap out of it and attempt another goal.
Stephen Chow’s Frankenstein’s Monster of a film, Shaolin Soccer, speaks directly to that AYSO kid, the one standing in the noonday sun not realizing he’s probably having a low-grade hallucination. It’s a balls-out chimera of a sports film, at once a parody of and genuine tribute to an array of different influences: underdog sports movies, kung fu melodramas, Bugs Bunny cartoons, musicals and manga. It’s a kitchen sink epic, a hodgepodge of styles and attitudes that shouldn’t work—as one soccer player says directly to the camera mid-match, perhaps serving as an audience proxy and saying what we all have on our minds, “THIS DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.”
And it doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The movie’s all the more hilarious for its insistence on turning its back on coherence. Instead, its allegiance belongs firmly to (Groucho) Marxism and pretzel logic.
Sing (cowriter/director Chow) is a shaolin bum, a former student at a Shaolin Temple who was once known as Mighty Steel Leg but who is now living a hand-to-mouth life as a collector of recyclables and eternally optimistic king fu missionary. He meets up with another leg, Golden Leg, a former soccer star ruined by scandal and now relegated to a job as chief ball boy and number one shoe-shiner at his former club, the not-at-all thematically named Team Evil. These two kind-hearted losers recognize an opportunity for redemption in each other and hatch, well, a ridiculous scheme: Mighty Golden Leg will coach Sing and his brothers from the Shaolin Temple (all of whom have strayed from true kung fu in some way) in a big soccer tournament, with the ultimate goal of defeating the moustache-twirling cheats of Team Evil. Of course!
You can see where this is going, but while Shaolin Soccer does hit all of the familiar beats of Bad News Bears-esque sports films, it compulsively takes left turns into fever dreams of chaotic, wonderful incoherence: characters form lounge-singing duos dressed in monk drag (orange robes and bad bald caps) and the actors crack up on camera, Jimmy Fallon style, while performing a ridiculous song; soccer matches are eye-popping, gravity-defying experiments in cartoon physics, where a well-placed kick of a lightning-fast soccer balls can send opponents flying like bowling pins; and a dumpling-making technique based on a kung fu discipline is adapted into a soccer strategy and ultimately ensures that the forces of good win the day. Yes, it’s beautifully strange.
But ultimately I suppose one of the main reasons I admire this film so much is that it makes me doubt the very status of my sanity, Philip K. Dick-style: Who’s to say the modern world isn’t an illusion, and that in reality I’m still on that soccer field in the early ’80s, ignoring the ref’s whistle, reeling from the hot sun, and inventing Shaolin Soccer before I pass out and have to mainline some orange slices? Who indeed.