On many counts, Shaolin Soccer (12A) ought not to work: it's a football film, for starters, a genre of rare awfulness; it features some very clunky product placement; its US distributor, Miramax, is reported to have taken the chopsticks to it in the editing suite; it has the gall to attempt several slapstick gags that Timmy Mallett might have thought twice about. And yet, work the film does, in its haphazard way.
The storyline is plotting-by-numbers: a group of former Shaolin novices deploy kung-fu techniques to try to overcome Team Evil (whose manager, disappointingly, bears no resemblance to Alex Ferguson) and win the National Soccer Tournament. From this, director Stephen Chow conjures, somehow, a disarming entertainment. During their matches, the team is seen flying through the air or frozen mid-shot while the camera rotates round them in scenes that poke fun at the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. These computer-enhanced sequences, though crudely done like much of the film, aren't without their poetic moments: in one charming shot, the film's hero is shown delicately kicking a raw egg from foot to foot.
Off the pitch, the film is pretty empty-headed about the new, economically aggressive China - the team want to win the tournament in order "to get rich" and that's that. Also, much of Shaolin Soccer's enjoyment depends on how indulgent you feel towards director Stephen Chow's guileless physical comedy - at one point, the team's mystic goalkeeper walks into the goalpost by mistake, possibly the oldest pratfall of them all. And I'm man enough to admit I couldn't help laughing at jokes even less sophisticated than that.
When Hamro, a hard-up small-time hood, returns from Moscow to his remote home village in Tajikistan to tend to his dying mother, we get the impression that life isn't about to get any easier for him: the neighbourhood is known as the "The Wolf's Den" and a local sideline is trafficking heroin back over the border. Worse, Hamro owes money around the village and, apart from selling his mother's house, he has no way of repaying it.
Djamshed Usmonov's stark film, Angel on the Right (12A) scratches a compelling portrait of a violent, unsentimental society (which is Muslim, but only incidentally so). Hamro's mother pulls a fast one on him, his creditors challenge him to a one-sided bare-knuckle brawl in the street and his son from a long-ago relationship is dumped on him. But the brooding Hamro doesn't learn - as he scams for cash he barely acknowledges his boy. If this sounds grim, it isn't; Usmonov laconically points out that the Wolf's Den may be rough, but there is justice to be found there - when the locals do business, they shake each other violently by the hand until a price is agreed. Fate eventually hands Hamro his comeuppance in this lean morality tale, and through an entirely unexpected agent.
Alex loves Aimee. But is Aimee the enigmatic trophy wife he's just picked up in a bar? Or is she the woman who is his girlfriend but who now claims never to have met Alex? Or is she the amorous babe he can't shake off? It's hard to tell because - here's the clever bit - all three are played by the same actress.
Ludic, sharp, profound, moving - these are some of the things which Reconstruction (12A) is not. An hour-and-a-half of erotic sophistry, young Danish director Christoffer Boe's first feature has the heart-rending pull and sleek looks of a perfume advert.
Got a period drama going limp on you? Better call for Smith and Dench. Maggie softens 'em up with a catty retort, then Judi weighs in with a look of tender vulnerability. The old Dame one-two, and Ladies in Lavender (12A) - the slight, sweet 1930s tale of a Polish refugee who drifts into the empty rural lives of Dench and Smith - keeps throwing this same combination.
Let's do no more than note the release of Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (12A) and move on smartly to this week's final releases. There are two ways, among many, to make an exploitation movie. Self-parodically, as in Toolbox Murders (15), a self-explanatory and not unenjoyable slasher from Tobe Hooper, who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or cynically, as in The Hillside Strangler (18), a gratuitous, nasty film about the perpetrators of the series of real-life murders that took place in LA in the late Seventies. Take your pick.
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