Sing (Stephen Chow), a master of Shaolinquan kung fu, whose goal in life is to let the world know about the benefits of the ancient art, experiments with various methods to inform the modern world about shaolin kung fu, some of which include comedic song and dance routines; all bear no positive results. He then meets Fung (Ng Man Tat), a legendary soccer star in his days, until his teammate Hung, now a rich businessman, paid him off. After missing the game-winning penalty kick, Fung's “golden leg” was broken by an angry baseball bat-wielding mob (who was actually hired by Hung), forcing him to retire from active play, due to his disability. On the day Fung learns of Hung's treachery, he meets Sing while in a drunken state in front of a shopping centre.
Sing tries to explain his desires to promote the modern uses of kung fu to Fung, who initially is unconvinced with Sing's idea and brushes off his pleas. When an irritated Fung throws a beer can at Sing, the youth kicks the can high into the sky, vanishing without a trace, but the old man remains adamant. Later, Fung sees a huge crack in a brick wall some miles away, only to discover that it was caused by the very same beer can Sing kicked and is astounded when the wall breaks down when he removes the can, due to the force of the impact. Fung coincidentally witnesses a fight between Sing and a group of local thugs, who ridicule the Shaolin master. After Sing beats the gang in a one-sided fight, nearly destroying a brick wall just by kicking a soccer ball, Fung is hit with an idea and asks if Sing could use kung fu to play soccer. Sing likes the idea and agrees for Fung to become his coach.
Sing meets Mui (Vicki Zhao), a baker with severe acne who uses Tai Chi to make mantou. Despite her appearance, Sing regularly visits her and even takes Mui to look at very expensive dresses at a high end department store (where he works as a janitor) after hours. She soon forms an attachment to Sing and even gets a makeover. However, this backfires when the excessive amount of make-up used gives her an almost clown-like appearance. When Mui reveals her feelings to Sing, he tells her he only wants to be her friend. This revelation, coupled with the constant bullying from her overbearing boss, leads Mui to disappear.
Reuniting with his fellow Shaolin brothers, who have since led separate, busy lives, Sing and Fung attempt to put together an unbeatable soccer team, albeit after much persuasion and initial rejection by the other brothers. However, Fung is keen on proving his skills, and in order to turn Sing and his players into real soccer athletes, he invites a vicious team, consisting of local thugs (some of whom Sing had encountered previously) to play against them in an exhibition match; rather than score points, the thugs proceed to give the Shaolin team a brutal beating. When all seems lost, the Shaolin disciples reawaken their skills and win. A few of the thugs even beg Sing to be allowed to join their team, giving their squad enough players to compete professionally.
The newly formed Team Shaolin enters the professional soccer league in China, where they chalk up successive (and often ridiculously one-sided) victories over teams who are, on paper, superior to them. Their next goal is to win the China Super Cup and to beat the notorious Team Evil, helmed by none other than Fung's old nemesis, Hung. Hung plans to win the Cup by assembling a squad of players who have been injected with an American drug, granting them superhuman strength and speed, making them practically invincible. Team Shaolin, which had steamrolled their earlier opponents, are brought back to reality when Team Evil's amazing capabilities prove more than a match for them. At a critical moment, when Team Shaolin's Empty Hand and Iron Shirt are severely injured during the match, Mui reappears to keep goal for Team Shaolin.
In preparation for his final and most powerful attack, Team Evil's center forward leaps into the sky and summons dark demonic energy, turning the ball into a glowing orb. Mui slowly takes up the Tai Chi single whip posture to guard against the threat and channels her qi in the form of a Yin-yang symbol. When he kicks the fiery ball, it explodes towards Mui, but she leaps back and redirects the attack by twirling around and spinning it on her finger. Mui and Sing combine their martial skills and rocket the ball down field with so much force that it creates a horizontal tornado, which tears the ground and sucks up everything in its path. The ball plows through Team Evil's goal post and destroys half of the stadium, winning the tournament for Team Shaolin.
Hung is stripped of his title of soccer chairman and sent to jail for five years, while Team Evil players are permanently banned from playing in the professional league. With people all over the world beginning to become aware of and practicing kung fu, Sing's dream is finally fulfilled.
Apart from several veteran actors, Chow stated in an interview with Premiere Magazine that he cast several people in his entourage who had no prior acting experience before Shaolin Soccer. For example, Lam Chi Chung (Weight Vest) had worked as Chow’s screenwriter and Chan Kwok Kuen (Empty Hand) was the dance choreographer hired to design the "Michael Jackson dance number" that followed Sing and Mui’s first meeting early in the film. Chow comments he made Chan wear Bruce Lee’s yellow-and-black tracksuit because only the goalkeeper "can wear a special uniform." Tin Kai Man (Iron Shirt) had been Chow’s production manager on several movies, but had acted in numerous minor roles in previous films. For instance, he played a young wanna-be Triad member in Chow’s preceding movie, King of Comedy. Cecilia Cheung and Karen Mok, who briefly appear as Team Dragon Players 7 & 11 in Shaolin Soccer, had major roles in King of Comedy. Chow defends his decision to hire non-actors thusly, "In terms of finding talent, I try to bring out the funniest thing I notice about them during casting, if it made us laugh at the casting, it will also do on the big screen.
Three of the principal cast members appeared in Chow's Kung Fu Hustle: Chan Kwok Kuen (Empty Hand) portrayed Brother Sum, boss of the "Axe Gang"; Tin Kai Man (Iron Shirt) portrayed the loud-mouthed advisor of Brother Sum; and Lam Chi Chung (Weight Vest) portrayed Bone, Chow’s sidekick and partner in petty crime. Fung Min Hun (Team Rebellion Captain) briefly appeared as Cecilia Cheung's abusive boyfriend in King of Comedy and the Four Eyes Clerk who beats up both Sing and Bone when they make fun of him on the bus in Kung Fu Hustle.
21st Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
Shaolin Soccer received highly positive reviews from film critics, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics had given the film positive reviews based on 86 reviews. And 100% from top critics.
China's State Administration of Radio, Film and TV rejected Shaolin Soccer from theatrical and DVD/VCD release, because of the possibility of insulting Buddhists by putting "soccer" alongside "Shaolin" in the title. Stephen Chow refused to change the title; as a result, Shaolin Soccer's producers were banned from shooting films in mainland China for one year.
The first of a four volume Shaolin Soccer Manhua was published in Hong Kong roughly nine months after the film originally premiered in 2001. The characters where drawn with large manga-like eyes and cartoonish bodies, but the artists were careful to retain the likenesses of each actor who portrayed them.
ComicsOne approached noted comic book artist Andy Seto with the idea of creating a two volume Manhua-style graphic novel adaptation of the feature film. Seto attached himself to the project because the film was very popular and, therefore, had "a certain level of marketing value". The project was officially announced on June 30, 2003 and the release of vol. 1 was scheduled to coincide with the film’s US premiere in August, but the film was pushed back. The Miramax film corporation bought the American film rights to Shaolin soccer before its release in China, so they helped publish the comic book along with two Chinese film companies who originally produced the film. Volumes 1 (ISBN 1-58899-318-3) and 2 (ISBN ISBN 1-58899-319-1) were released in August and November of 2003 and sold for $13.95 US each. Their suggested reading level was age 13 and above.
Seto worked to make the novel as faithful to the film as possible but he admits that Stephen Chow's brand of Mo lei tau comedy does not translate well into illustrations. He stated in an interview that "the Shaolin Soccer comic is 80% movie adaptation with 20% new content." This new content includes a backstory about Steel Leg's training in Shaolin before the death of his master, as well as completely rewriting entire sections of the movie. For example, in the film a group of bar thugs beat up Sing and Iron Head after listening to their lounge-style tribute to Shaolin kung fu. The following day, Sing seeks out the group and uses his Shaolin skills to beat the thugs using a soccer ball. Fung sees the brawl and comes up with the idea of fusing kung fu and soccer. However, in the comic book, Sing is meditating in the park when he gets hit in the head with a soccer ball. The cocky players mock him and destroy a stone statue of his deceased master. Sing proceeds to use the soccer ball as a weapon.
Another example is the fact the characters are visually different from the film. All of their comic book personas look to be in their twenties to thirties, with highly toned athletic physiques (with the exception of Weight Vest); even Iron Head, who was the eldest of the six brothers, appears younger than should.
Several online reviews have criticized the American adaptation for its apparent lack of story line coherence, mixture of realistic and cartoonish drawing styles, and bad Chinese-to-English translation, among other issues. In regards to the translation, one reviewer stated, "It's almost as if the book was translated with a first-year English student referencing a Chinese-to-English dictionary, with strangely-assembled sentences and strange bursts of dialogue peppering the pages." Another common complaint was that the comics seemed to be geared towards those people who had previously seen the movie. Without this familiarity, a newcomer would lose track of the storyline because of the overcrowded pages and rapidly shifting plot.
According to an interview with Premiere Magazine, Chow stated,
Actually the 'over the top' CG and kinetic soccer moves were an inspiration that came from a classic Japanese anime and ongoing manga series called 'Captain Tsubasa'. The animation was very big in Hong Kong over ten years ago when it sweeped kids of all ages and even adults loved it. It has a cult following in Europe as well. But it was only possible with pen and ink back then, now with the advent of CGI, it can really be done....(the idea of combining it with Kung Fu was in my head for many years but we had to wait for the CG technology to mature)
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, co-creators of the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated television series, stated in an interview that "Shaolin Soccer is one of our favorite movies. It has tons of fantastic action and lots of funny moments. Some of the effects provided inspiration for how bending [the art of controlling the elements] might look on the show.
The Chinese website xiaoyouxi.com has eight flash animations devoted to Shaolin Soccer. They range from non-playable 16 bit video games where the characters reenact the soccer games from the film to animations highlighting Sing and Mui’s strained relationship (one of which is accompanied by the song "Hazard" by Richard Marx).
One episode of Keroro Gunso had a soccer theme which parodied this movie.