Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Review: Shaolin Girl (Shôrin shôjo)

dir. Katsuyuki Motohiro (2008)

Shaolin Girl is a bit of an enigma. It's really two (maybe two and a bit) movies spliced together. Fair enough, except that the Western equivalent would be The Bad News Bears spliced together with The Matrix (with a bit of A League Of Their Own tossed in at the end).
The plot is paper thin: Rin, a young woman recently completing 9 years of training at the iconic Shaolin Temple, returns to Japan to spread Shaolin through her grandfather's dojo. Arriving in town, she finds her Grandfather's dojo derelict and her former teacher cooking at the local noodle house. No one will tell her what happened to the Dojo, so she moves into the ruins anyway.

Hooking up with MinMin, Rin visits the local university, where there's something very, very sinister happening with the girls lacrosse team (we're never told what—I mean never, it's never explained at all. Ever. Oh and it involves the beach volleyball team—do I smell sequel?). Rin joins the lacrosse team in order to recruit them into learning Shaolin. The Teacher takes time out from his noodle-slinging to sign on as coach. This part of the flick is firmly in the “Bad News Bears” territory—talented but awkward outsider tries to prove herself, fails miserably because she doesn't understand the importance of teamwork and must earn back the respect of her team mates. It's nicely done, with the required elements: The flash of self-realization, the long training montages (particularly well done), the gradually winning over and bonding with team mates, the awkward yet arousing scenes of sexual awakening (okay, I lied about the last part.) .

Then the script takes a wild, spiraling dive into complete whatthefuckery. It turns out that Rin is the illegitimate love child of Luke Skywalker and Bruce Lee—she was sent away to Shaolin to teach her to control the awesome power that churns within her. Apparently this dark power will only be released if she fights (so of course sending her to the most famous martial arts school in history is the perfect way to head that off), and for some reason that is never fully explained the Director of the University wants to battle it out with her. Next follows kidnapping, arson, ambushes, massive free-for-all melee complete with comic relief, and more special effects than you can shake your nunchuks at. Despite the whirlwind of improbabilities and implausibilities, it works. The special effects look great, the fights, while not stunning in their originality, are competent, and the final confrontation (while a little long) is very satisfying.

Almost as an afterthought, the authors suddenly remember that this is supposed to be a lacrosse movie, so the team crams an entire season of games during the credits. This isn't a criticism, as the montage was nicely done. Basically, the filmmakers started with such a wide net, this movie could (and often did) go anywhere, and no one choice was better or worse than any other potential choice. Personally, I would have preferred that the filmmakers either a). stayed with the lacrosse story throughout the movie, or b) used the lacrosse story just long enough to provide a framework for the more revenge-oriented action plot.

Please don't think that because I pointed out this movie's (many) flaws that I didn't enjoy it, because I did.  It's not a bad movie by any means, but it could have been a great one. Still, there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, and I don't' doubt that I'll watch Shaolin Girl again in the future.

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