Friday, April 23, 2010

REVIEW: Shaolin Girl

少林少女 (Shōrin shōjo)

Released: 2008

Katsuyuki Motohiro

Ko Shibasaki
Toru Nakamura

Yosuke Eguchi
Chi Chung Lam
Takashi Okamura

Running time: 107 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

As a huge fan of both Japanese and Hong Kong cinema, I saw "Shaolin Girl" as an opportunity for two of my film-fanboy worlds to collide in a glorious border-busting orgy of sports laughs, J-humor, and kung fu action. The premise was alive with possibility: Take the globally proven formula of special effects and laughs Stephen Chow created in "Shaolin Soccer" and apply it to a Japanese sports film; Cast comely, proven talent Ko Shibasaki as your titular heroine and surround her with comedians and actors (Takashi Okamura, Yosuke Eguchi, Chow film vets Chi Chung Lam and Zhang "Kitty" Yuqi, all wasted) who can bring their parts to life; Get the creative team behind the massively popular "Bayside Shakedown" films to produce (with Stephen Chow, no less) and direct. So how did director Motohiro Katsuyuki assemble all these parts, then create a joyless muddle of a film?

For those unfamiliar with "Shaolin Soccer," the HK smash to which "Shaolin Girl" is a sort-of sequel, here's the plot in a nutshell: A lovable loser with amazing kung fu prowess convinces his brothers--also Shaolin-trained--to play on a losing soccer team. They apply their kung-fu skills to the sport, hijinx ensue, and a good time is had by all. "Shaolin Girl" gets this half right, and in an alternate universe of cinematic common sense would have been called "Shaolin Lacrosse" and followed the losers-become-winners trajectory of so many other Japanese school sports films. (Yes they are formulaic, but when executed well they can be amazing fun, just like kung-fu movies.) Unfortunately "Shaolin Girl" combines this basic sports team plot with a wrong-headed attempt at creating genuine menace in the form of an evil martial arts mastermind who is… a university president. Toru Nakamura does what he can with a one-note non-role, literally glowering down from his tower at the University's campus, but really: Has there ever been a less intimidating evil genius occupation? This entire side of the film feels tacked on, even when—especially when!—it becomes the main story and the kung-fu-trained girls' lacrosse team becomes the forgotten subplot. How forgotten? That story, ostensibly THE story, is only resolved during the end credit scroll.

The concept of using kung fu to play soccer demanded a heavy comedic bent punctuated with special effects that placed the film squarely in fantasy territory, and one would think that a girls' lacrosse team utilizing Shaolin would up the ante, but no. It's played straight and sincere, a decision that sucks the life out of the film. I imagine that the film's producers didn't want to just mimic "Soccer"'s tone, but really, this isn't a 'recreate the wheel' type of enterprise. What should have been a fun, breezy movie that zips by and is over before you know it becomes a slog of what seems like 3 hours, and fails as either comedy or action film.

You can't blame Ko Shibasaki, who radiates a painful sincerity in most every scene but is essentially trying to push custard up a hill as Rin, the Shaolin-trained girl who wants to teach everyone kung fu. The idea must have been for Shibasaki to split the difference between her cute/hammy turn in "Dororo" and her serious action-heroine role in "The Sinking of Japan", but there's little room for laughter here. It's evident from the tai chi and dojo scenes that she did some training for the role, but her fight scenes lack the speed and conviction that they need given the film's grave tone. A "Come Drink With Me"/"Kill Bill"-style scene where she fights 100 bad guys in a huge room with an open staircase should have been an action showpiece, but instead reveals every limitation of both the cast and the director. Ko-chan seems a beat slow at every turn, and the editing and camera angles do nothing to mask her lack of fight authenticity. Perhaps it would have worked as a spoof if Katsuyuki had adjusted the tone accordingly and cast, say, Juri Ueno as the Shaolin shojo. But played straight it fails to generate the excitement of a well-made action film, especially in light of other estrogen-driven martial arts films like "Chocolate", "Coweb", or even "High-Kick Girl". If you're going to play it straight actionwise you've got to walk the walk, and Shibasaki just can't.

What to say? It's strangely watchable as a train wreck of confused intentions, but unsuccessful on every level. The Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman" was famously half way through production when the creative principals realized they had gone down the wrong road, scrapped almost all the footage they'd shot, and started fresh with a simpler, funnier concept. (These edited sections became "Wake Up, Ron Burgundy", a near-complete film tacked on as a bonus feature on some editions of the "Anchorman" DVD.) If only Katsuyuki and company had the same epiphany partway through their film, something genuine and fun might have been salvaged. As it stands, "Shaolin Girl" is a cautionary tale for filmmakers. Its lesson is painfully simple: Know whether you're making a comedy or a drama, then script, cast, and direct accordingly.

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