After 3 weeks of Japanese language classes, I decided to put my newly-acquired language skills to test by going to the cinema for the first time since arriving at Tokyo. My original plan was to see IRON MAN, but since it isn't going to come out in Japan until September, I can only pick a Japanese film to watch (all other Hollywood fare were stuff that came out during the end of 2007, the newer stuff showing now are SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and 10 000 B.C...)
I picked a film which I knew wouldn't really be too much of a challenge to understand despite my lack of Japanese language skills:
That's the much-talked about Japanese 'Shaolin Soccer spin-off' that Stephen Chow himself had co-produced with Japan's megaproducer Chihiro Kameyama (who is behind massive hits like last year's HERO movie, the BAYSIDE SHAKEDOWN films, the UMIZARU films etc.) Since Stephen Chow's involved, he, of course, had some say on the casting, and interesting, SHAOLIN GIRL, has two Stephen Chow regulars, Lam Tze-Chung and Tin Kai-Man (former's the fat sidekick, latter's the guy who played IRON VEST in Shaolin Soccer and the no.2 guy in KUNG FU HUSTLE's Axe Gang), there's also the pretty Kitty Zhang from CJ7 (the teacher, not the kid).
The film stars the always-solid Kou Shibasaki as the protagonist, along with Yosuke Eguchi (he played Chara's long-lost brother in SWALLOWTAIL, the samurai hero in the movie within a movie in APRIL STORY, the big bro in the classic dorama HITOTSU YANE NO SHITA/ Under One Roof) and Toru Nakamura (the guy's forever a badass, you've seen him HK productions like Tokyo Raiders and Gen X cops)
Anyway, the film begins at Shaolin Temple, where Rin (Shibasaki) had just completed her training. The scene was in Mandarin, and it was amusing to see Shibasaki speak in passable Mandarin, but the Chinese lines of the (obviously Japanese) actors playing the old Shaolin Masters were barely incoherent. Behind me, I heard a few people giggling, I assume they were Chinese too.
Rin returns to Japan after her training to take over her long-deceased grandfather's dojo, only to find out that the place is broken-down and abandoned. She then seeks her grandfather's best student (Eguchi), who now runs a Chinese restaurant with bumbling assistants (Lam and Tin), and also comely waitress Minmin (Kitty Zhang). Lam and Tin's numerous dialogue in Cantonese made me giggle, but since I was the only one who giggled, I assume I was the only one in the cinema who understood Cantonese (thus meaning that the others who giggled earlier were from Mainland China, Singapore or Taiwan... just a guess)
But then, the cinema was pretty quiet, in fact, I seriously don't think there was a single time when anyone laughed at all (some barely audible chuckles, I guess). But then, SHAOLIN GIRL isn't exactly a laugh-out loud fare like Shaolin Soccer. Yet there are still numerous homage to both Shaolin Soccer and Kungfu Hustle. Just that soccer is replaced by lacrosse.
We see Minmin bringing Rin to college to join the lacrosse team, yet Rin struggles to fit in with the team despite her superhumanly Shaolin kung fu skills, she will learn cliched lessons like how to be a team player, and gradually gain the acceptance of the other team members. It's all very predictable, yet it isn't, but not in a good way.
I had wondered briefly why the film was called SHAOLIN GIRL and not SHAOLIN LACROSSE if the mainly on lacrosse? Then as the film crawled towards the halfway point, I realized that the film had too few lacrosse scenes to be a lacrosse film, and it's quite slow-paced, and nearly too long. Too many mundane stuff happening, and my problem with the pacing is compounded by the fact that 40% of the time, I had no idea what was going on since I couldn't understand the dialogue (but I could make guesses like, ah, Nakamura's college president character is a villain because he's in a big office, having conferences with sinister-looking minions, or that something has happened to Eguchi's character that made him lose his faith in martial arts) Then the film abandons a few plot strands, and shifts from the sports genre to the martial arts genre.
Some of the major martial arts setpieces towards the end were kinda entertaining, and to me, was better than the rest of the movie, which really felt meandering, aimless and manipulative (for the humour). Even so, it's not something I've never seen before in other films of this genre. Seeing Rin take on hundreds and hundreds of baddies would've been cool if director Katsuyuki Motohiro (Space Travelers, Bayside Shakedown films, Summer Time Machine Blues) didn't make the strange stylistic choice of trying to inject the sequences with pathos, putting in solemn and foreboding music instead of trying to let us really feel the badassness of those visceral moments. Since the film is also aimed for all members of the family, it's very tame, nothing like the 'HOUSE OF THE BLUE LEAVES' battle in KILL BILL VOL. 1, and not over-the-top enough to be like KUNGFU HUSTLE's ending fight scenes. Hell, even the Korean film, THE CITY OF VIOLENCE, had more exciting fighting scenes (not a good film though, but I think I may have enjoyed that more than SHAOLIN GIRL).
However, the ultimate special move she unleashed upon the 'final boss' is very WTF-ish, in fact, while in the cinema, I was mouthing that over and over again while staring at the screen... while everyone was silent, I guess the Japanese audiences have really gotten used to everything.
To me, this film is another one of those films that tried too hard to be too many things at once to please as many people as possible, but ended up not being able to deliver properly. Ultimately, this is still a feel-good family film. People bond via tai chi, bad guys have hidden secret pasts and are just one worthy opponent away from redemption, enemies don't remain as enemies etc. The end credits plays over an ending montage that will make many smile, but will also reminds me of the potential this film may have squandered.
Maybe in the past week or so, I've seen too many other superior Japanese films, I had just seen Kou Shibasaki in MAIKO-HAAAAN!!! and I think that's a vastly superior film if you're looking for a crazy comedy.
Check out the trailer and you'll know what I was talking about regarding the Shaolin Master's Mandarin skills...
One thing I do wonder is whether Kitty Zhang was dubbed, or did she really speak Japanese in the film. Or whether Tin and Lam are reprising their characters from Shaolin Soccer as well.