Shaolin Girl (Japan 2008)

Rating: **
Review Date: 3/2/09
Executive Producer: Stephen Chow
Cast: Kou Shibasaki, Kitty Zhang

Painfully disappointing. This Japanese spin-off of Stephen Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" (2001) features a teenage kung fu prodigy named Rin (Kou Shibasaki) who leaves Shaolin Temple to spread Shaolin kung fu to Japan. However, when she gets there, no one wants anything to do with her and her grandfather's dojo is an abandoned ruin. She befriends a girl named Min-min (adorably cute Kitty Zhang) who talks her into trying out for the University lacrosse team, and wacky hijinks ensue as a result of her incredible strength. Unfortunately, she's a team liability because she refuses to cooperate with her teammates and even ends up hurting them, so she gets ousted. Adding more sorrow to her plight, she attracts the attention of the evil school principal, who wants nothing more than to challenge Rin in a fight. He destroys all that's precious to her in an effort to focus her rage, and in the final reel she storms his fortress in the spirit of "Game Of Death" (1977) and defeats dozens of increasingly difficult foes before reaching her goal. While the entire film is bizarre and incomprehensible, the climax is utterly baffling.

Overall, the film is a chaotic mess. The lacrosse plot line and the kung fu plot line are at odds with each other and create a jarring disconnect. The film tries WAY too hard to be funny, and it just isn't. Two of the characters from "Shaolin Soccer" show up as comedic elements and to tie into the whole "Shaolin Soccer" universe, but end up just being an embarrassment to the production. The fighting sequences are pretty poor and the editing is surprisingly bad for an Asian film. Kou Shibasaki has good presence and intensity, but her fight scenes aren't especially convincing. I think this is mostly due to the ridiculous overuse of wirework and digital effects. All of the crazy visual effects just completely suck the life and energy out of the fight scenes, which is disappointing. It's also a shame that this is the way most action films are going these days, which results in a completely uninteresting product. We can't risk actual stunt performers getting hurt, so let's replace them with digital actors. On the flip side of that, filmmakers want to create such outrageous imagery that they have no choice but to employ unbelievable visual effects. I'd much rather see actual ground based fighting than leaping around and shooting fireballs, just as I'd rather see a real stuntman fall ten feet than an animated CGI character fall sixty feet. There's just no tangible sense of danger, contact, tension, and physical interaction when the threats are all added in post. There's no cause and effect - it's all make believe. And if the actors have no context to believe, then how can the audience believe them?

On the plus side, the production is slick and the film is pretty to look at. It's full of cute teenage girls in adorable lacrosse uniforms to ogle at, but is that why you're watching the film? If you're looking for kung fu action (or any kind of action) you'd best look elsewhere.