Nothing will prepare you for Shaolin Girl - except perhaps a Surgeon General's Warning and the complete upending of your expectations. Some hallucinogenic drugs would help, too. A Japanese-produced spinoff to a little Hong Kong movie called Shaolin Soccer, Shaolin Girl comes with a pretty good pedigree. It has Fuji TV's Bayside Shakedown braintrust behind it - producer Chihiro Kameyama and director Katsuyuki Motohiro - plus it stars capable actors in Kou Shibasaki, Toru Nakamura, and Yosuke Eguchi. Comedian Takashi Okamura, star of the Hong Kong Cinema lovefest No Problem 2 also shows up, strengthening the film's Hong Kong-Japan connection. Finally, Shaolin Girl features appearances by two Shaolin Soccer vets, Tin Kai-Man and Lam Chi-Chung, and it bears the stamp of the man himself, Stephen Chow, as the film's executive producer.
Given the crew, it's a winner, right? Well, perhaps in an alternate universe where "winning" is defined as making something so awful that it becomes compellingly watchable. Viewing Shaolin Girl is like rubbernecking at a car wreck involving 200 cars and millions of dollars in property damage; the sight is a marvel to behold, but you're gawking for all the wrong reasons. Any objective and unapologetic review of Shaolin Girl would rate it as a bad motion picture. That disappointment is magnified exponentially when you factor in obvious expectations, i.e. that it should capitalize on the supreme goodwill already created by Stephen Chow and be as funny and entertaining as Shaolin Soccer. Regrettably, it falls way short of the mark.
Kou Shibasaki (of Dororo, Battle Royale, and a one-minute appearance in the Hong Kong film Tokyo Raiders) plays Rin, a student of the Shaolin Temple who returns home to her little Japanese town after finally leaving the school. However, her local dojo has since closed and the students dispersed, with her former sifu Iwai (Yosuke Eguchi, who appeared in the Taiwanese thriller Silk) now running a Chinese restaurant. Among his employees are Fatty and Tin, two Hong Kong transplants who should be familiar to anyone who's seen Shaolin Soccer. Yep, they're the former cronies of Sing (the absent Stephen Chow), and what they're doing in Japan is not revealed until very late in the film. The reason is hardly interesting or relevant, but it's fun to see Tin Kai-Man and Lam Chi-Chung return for their roles. Still, the two do little except remind us that they've appeared in similar, superior films.
Like Sing from Shaolin Soccer, Rin is so enthralled with Shaolin Kung-Fu that she simply must teach it to everyone she meets. Sadly, nobody is interested except for Chinese student Minmin (Kitty Zhang of CJ7), who works at Iwai's restaurant and also plays lacrosse at Seikan International University. She offers to learn Shaolin Kung-Fu if Rin will play lacrosse in exchange. Rin agrees, both girls giggle happily, and that's how the setup happens for what should become Shaolin Lacrosse. There's no realization or narrative conflict driving the move, e.g., the lacrosse team sucks, and needs a Shaolin-powered boost to compete. Rin and her amazing kung-fu abilities join the lacrosse team simply as quid pro quo between two pretty girls with an interest in differing sports. How amazingly boring.
The boredom factor gets magnified when Iwai becomes the team's coach, genially teaching the girls how to use kung-fu to kick ass at lacrosse. However, he may have another agenda; Iwai immediately puts Rin in his doghouse, reprimanding or benching her whenever possible. Since Iwai is so nice and friendly, it seems impossible that his motives are selfish - and they aren't! Iwai really wants to protect Rin from herself. First of all, she doesn't understand teamwork, which is something the team only discovers when they play their first practice match (oddly, nobody figured it out during regular practice). The team ostracizes Rin after she messes up on the field, and after a few minutes of heartbreak she's ready to learn all about the intricacies of teamwork. The expected plot of this film should be obvious: Rin learns team play while the team suffers without her, leading to a rousing climax where she rejoins them just in time to prevent certain defeat at the hands of a surprisingly powerful opposing team. Cue celebratory montage.
Whoops, that description applies to a normal film that actually follows the sports film playbook, and Shaolin Girl is not normal at all. Lacrosse is only one of the film's two plotlines, and it seemingly exists only to provide Rin with a group of cute girls to recruit into her new Shaolin dojo. Not surprisingly, the girls all become good pals and stalwart teammates, a development detailed in an enormously tedious training montage where the girls practice Shaolin Kung-Fu in a slow, wannabe inspirational manner. These themes are similar to those in Shaolin Soccer - i.e., Shaolin Kung-Fu is cool, loyalty to your friends and teammates is also pretty cool - but Shaolin Girl treats the attainment of martial arts camaraderie with too much reverence. It's nice to know the girls are getting along, but how much of their getting along do we exactly have to watch? And wouldn't it better to see this girl's lacrosse team actually play lacrosse instead of just practice it serenely?
There's also another storyline, and if it doesn't ape Shaolin Soccer, it at least has some Stephen Chow connection in that it contains themes from Kung Fu Hustle. Unfortunately, that's all it does - resemble something from a superior inspiration - meaning the themes are present only to initiate a perfunctory kung-fu climax. Toru Nakamura (Who appeared in the Hong Kong movies Tokyo Raiders and Gen-X Cops - see the pattern here?) plays the President of Seikan International University - and in lieu of his real name, we'll call him a more appropriate one: Pure Evil. Mr. Evil is obviously a baddie because he wears all black, works out in his office while listening to status reports of his evil plans, and holds evil marketing meetings where people discuss, among other activities, the launching of Seikan's evil server and evil blog. Mr. Evil has an interest in Rin because he wants to beat up everyone he possibly can, plus she supposedly has massive power that could be turned to the Dark Side™. As you'd expect, Mr. Evil likes the Dark Side™ because, well, he's evil.
The film attempts actual foreshadowing by having Rin's Shaolin Monk teachers talk about this Dark Side™ at the start of the film. The Japanese actors butcher their Mandarin (an amusing turnabout since Hong Kong Cinema has long butchered the Japanese language) as they relate the Naruto-like prophecy of how Rin's powers are so strong that she may turn Sith if they're ever unleashed. Iwai is also aware of this, which is one reason he prohibits Rin from letting loose on the lacrosse field. Still, his demeanor is far too nice for someone in his situation, and his lack of intensity is shared by the film. Shaolin Girl is incredibly benign, and lacks the emotional or comedy beats needed to affect. Stephen Chow normally creates lovable losers and hissable bad guys, and has them clash frequently in order to develop the audience's identification and sympathy. The ideas in Stephen Chow films are not much removed from cliché, but Chow's gift has always been manipulating cliché to make it watchable and even emotionally compelling.
Shaolin Girl? It piles on the cliché and nixes any manipulation, going for straight-up maudlin sappiness that galls in its ineffectiveness. Katsuyuki Motohiro is a fine commercial director, but he seems out of his depth here - an odd thing to say since the very entertaining Bayside Shakedown movies are theoretically more complex than a silly action comedy like Shaolin Girl. If anything, this film proves that comedy is hard, as Motohiro can't apply his usual approach - light, earnest satire - and instead uses small throwaway gags as the basis of his film's comedy. However, the pace is too languid; the film seems to stop in its tracks whenever a joke flops. Motohiro compensates by magnifying the earnest part of his comedy formula, but he doesn't just add sap, he slops it on with the force of a steamroller, using assumed cheesy themes to sell the film's defining moments. Not surprisingly, the gambit fails. Stephen Chow films are able to sell cheese though lovable characters and rousing set pieces, but the emotions in Shaolin Girl are conveyed through the screenplay. The result? Tedium.
Basically, Shaolin Girl is incredibly boring, taking numerous could-be fun ideas and applying a buzz-killing pace that makes it all a chore to get into. Even the final fight is a drag, as the fighting lacks the impact or energy to offset its slower-than-expected speed and obvious fakeness. Too often, the tactic is to have Kou Shibasaki wade into a sea of bad guys, where she's obscured and they start reacting like they're being hit. Shibasaki reportedly trained very hard for the film, and she looks like she's developed some of the strength and flexibility required for her role. However, they could have used a better action director, or at least one who can handle decent impact and doesn't laze his way through set-ups. Both Tin Kai-Man and Lam Chi-Chung also participate in the fisticuffs, but neither is an action actor, making their appearance little more than an amusing shout-out to people who happened to see Shaolin Soccer.
Even worse, the climactic fight between Kou Shibasaki and Toru Nakamura is a nonsensical CG-assisted affair that could induce laughter if not audience rioting thanks to a bewildering climax that shocks in its over-the-top sentimentality. Shaolin Girl means well, but it's a wreck; it has limp set pieces, a plodding pace, a disjointed story, and cheesy, canned emotions. Worse, it doesn't even seem to understand what made Shaolin Soccer so damn fun. It's like someone saw Shaolin Soccer and said, "Hey, this is a fun movie. We can remake it in Japan! But we should add more friendship and love. Hold on, let's make that motherly love! If we need extra time, we can drop the sports." If that's the conversation that went on, then congrats to the filmmakers: they honored their intentions to the letter. Too bad those intentions were so misguided that not even Shaolin Soccer completists may wish to add this to their collection. It's that off-target.
Shaolin Girl may still delight junk movie aficionados who get off on watching films reach new levels of badness. There is some element of surprise in Shaolin Girl in that it goes from interesting to oddly boring to marvelously unfunny, and then to an insanely unsolicited level of audacious badness that has to be seen to be believed. There's some entertainment value there, but it's of the rubbernecking variety; even if you find someone who likes this film, it's doubtful that they can actually claim it to be a good movie. Shaolin Girl is an unworthy follow-up to Shaolin Soccer, and an onimous sign for future Stephen Chow-approved works. With Jump and Dragonball forthcoming, one can only hope this is an aberration, and not a sign of things to come. (Kozo 2008)