Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.
In 2007, Sean posted on Film Junk about a sequel to Stephen Chow’s phenomenally successful Shaolin Soccer. The sequel would be financed and made by Japanese and only be produced by Chow (who is Chinese). The sport highlighted would be lacrosse rather than soccer. Only one comment was made. Chris thought the movie would be worth seeing for the lead actress, Kou Shibasaki. And then later in the year, Sean posted about a teaser trailer for this movie, now titled, Shaolin Girl. And again only one comment was made. Mike said he would probably see it, but he was disappointed that Chow wasn’t directing. And I never gave a second thought about this movie again.
Then I watched All About Women, which I reviewed. And I was charmed by the actress Kitty Zhang. So I looked up her previous movies and I noticed Shaolin Girl, but I had completely forgotten that this was the Shaolin Soccer sequel. The DVD cover was awfully designed in my opinion, but the garish coloring is instantly recognizable, so I guess the design isn’t so bad after all. Anyway, I happened to notice the DVD at the shop, so I decided to have a look.
At the risk of having to hand in my movie reviewing badge back to Sean, I must proclaim my love for this movie called Shaolin Girl. I was absolutely mesmerized by this film. When I had finished watching this film, I wondered why I hadn’t heard anyone singing the praises of this film. So I was quite dumbfounded to discover from the Internet that practically everyone else hated this film. I read some of the reviews and it felt like I had not seen the same film as these other people. I think I only read one mildly positive review that said the movie was fun, which I agree with. The rest of the reviews were negative. At this point, I guess I should issue a disclaimer and say that ninety-nine percent of you will probably not share the same opinion of this movie as I do. The one percent of you who share the same likes as I do should read on.
Here’s a quick synopsis to establish the setting. A Japanese girl (Kou Shibasaki) who had been sent to a Shaolin Temple at an early age decides to return home and spread the art of Shaolin kung fu. She returns home to find that her dojo has been abandoned. She finds her former kung fu teacher is now a cook at a Chinese restaurant. At the restaurant, a waitress (Kitty Zhang) takes a fancy to her and implores her to join the girls lacrosse team at the university even though she doesn’t know what lacrosse is. She agrees to learn how to play lacrosse if the lacrosse team in turn agrees to learn Shaolin kung fu. The university president (Toru Nakamura) has an ulterior motive that will ultimately result in a confrontation.
Now I admit the mood of the movie swings kind of erratically which is the kind of thing many reviewers criticize. They normally say that a movie can’t decide whether it wants to be: a comedy or a drama or whatever. Well, I was prepared to flow with the tonal shifts in this film. There are goofy moments. Some sweet moments. The violence isn’t too brutal. (I don’t recall any blood. Just some bruising.) Some things don’t play out as you might expect or hope, while other things are somewhat clichÃ©d.
One big reason for my acceptance of this film was that the whole film was photographed beautifully. One other reviewer acknowledged this as well. The frame composition is magnificent. The camera placement is crucial to frame composition, and not only that, the accompanying camera movement is also important. I haven’t gone to film school, so I am unable to completely articulate why I think the composition is magnificent. A picture really would be worth a thousand words.
Scene transitions were also nicely handled. I’ll just mention one simple example at the beginning of the film that takes place at the Shaolin Temple. Some priests are walking and talking as the camera is dollying with them. When a temple column passes across the frame in front of the priests, the zoom shifts abruptly closer to the priests. And with each successive column wipe, the viewer is given an increasing sense that he is eavesdropping on an important conversation.
The Japanese girl with the Shaolin skills is portrayed by Kou Shibasaki of Battle Royale fame. Apparently, she isn’t a martial artist, but she did spend a year training and I thought she acquitted herself admirably. Although she lacked speed, her form seemed convincing. I would equate her martial arts skills with those of David Carradine in the ’70s television series Kung Fu. He didn’t move very fast, but he seemed to move in a hyper-reality that caught his opponents off guard. Shibasaki needed to show martial arts skills more than she needed to demonstrate lacrosse skills, and there are moments where she fights upwards of a hundred opponents at once with no weapons.
The main villain is played by Toru Nakamura whom I recognized, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen him. So I looked up his previous movies and noticed two films I had seen: 2009 Lost Memories (ironically enough) and Tokyo Raiders. Coincidentally, Kou Shibasaki was also in Tokyo Raiders. (Both Tokyo Raiders and its sequel, Seoul Raiders, are fun films.) He doesn’t have much to say, but his portrayal of a bad ass was menacing enough.
I guess I should mention Kitty Zhang since she was the reason I bought the DVD in the first place. Her character seems unbelievably wholesome and cheery throughout the film and even in dire circumstances. Since this film isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, I didn’t have a problem with this.
The director, Katsuyuki Motohiro, had worked with writer Masashi Sogo previously on a film called Negotiator which referenced American action films of the ’70s and ’80s. Motohiro is a self-proclaimed action geek and Shaolin Girl references many martial arts moments. Since Stephen Chow is himself a big Bruce Lee fan, you can expect several Bruce Lee nods including one with a Bruce Lee look-alike.
Concerning the martial arts action, there is a liberal amount of CGI and wire-fu. The fighting is varied enough so that it doesn’t get too boring. One amusing scene shows you the end of what you might imagine a long fight would look like with the combatants never getting knocked out or giving up. There is an inventive fighting sequence on top of water where one can push his or her opponent through the water. Steven Chow had wanted an underwater shark scene in Shaolin Soccer, but the visual effects people recommended against it for maybe time, budgetary, or technical reasons. I wonder if the Japanese made the effort for this sequel to do some water CGI scenes. The climax of the final showdown has been mocked by some reviewers, but I can guarantee that you have never seen a fight end like this before.
The action director, Fuyuhiko Nishi, had choreographed the martial arts in only one other film before handling the chore for this movie. He directed the recently released High Kick Girl which showcases karate without the use of CGI or wires.
Since this film mixes lacrosse with martial arts, the writers have cleverly included a lacrosse training sequence that takes place in a bamboo forest. And why lacrosse, you might ask? Supposedly, lacrosse is a big sport in Japan. It started in the mid ’80s when some Japanese saw the sport during a visit to America and then invited some Americans over to Japan to demonstrate the sport. Japan now boasts the largest number of lacrosse players next to Canada and the US, and Japanese school girls are the main contingent. Since Shaolin Soccer was a big hit in Japan, some Japanese financiers contacted Stephen Chow for the rights to a sequel. I suppose it was natural to choose a popular sport in Japan for the sequel. Be sure to watch the coda that runs through the entire end credits for additional Shaolin lacrosse action!
My last paragraph answered why this movie had ties with Shaolin Soccer even though Shaolin Girl could be seen as a completely standalone film. I guess the producers thought that mixing martial arts with a sport was the reason for the success of the first film. The characters Iron Shirt (Tin Kai Man) and Weight Vest (Lam Chi Chung) from Shaolin Soccer work in the restaurant and do lend some martial arts aid to the girl. Having them in the restaurant does provide an opportunity for an egg gag.
Music often influences my appreciation of a film and I must comment on the awesome, generic Hollywood musical cues. Now I’m using the term “generic” here in a totally complimentary way. Normally bombastic music is not looked on kindly, but for this type of film, I think it is appropriate. Because the credits are only in Japanese, I don’t know who the music composer is. And I couldn’t find it from the Internet either. The sound design and mix were done at the Skywalker facilities and this is quite apparent to me.
Despite the naysayers, I found Shaolin Girl to be a fantastic, fun film appropriate for all ages. But it would be remiss of me not to say that perhaps its saccharine nature will be off-putting for the majority of you.