Fuji mounts 'Shaolin' push

AFM hopes high for Chow picture

Combining some of the hottest themes in Asian cinema, "Shaolin Girl," with its blend of kung fu, comedy and lacrosse, is Fuji TV's big hope for this week's American Film Market.

Co-produced by Japan's Chihiro Kameyama and Hong Kong's Stephen Chow ("Kung Fu Hustle"), the film centers on Rin (Kou Shibasaki), a young kung fu teacher who must take over her grandfather's dojo. In order to prepare herself, she travels to China for 3,000 days of grueling Shaolin kung fu training. On her return to Japan, she works to rebuild the dojo and joins her university lacrosse club, putting her considerable physical prowess to work for the team.

Comparisons with Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" are inevitable given his involvement — to say nothing of the subject, title and the inclusion of common cast members. Some even began referring to the project as "Shaolin Soccer 2," though co-producer Kameyama insists that is a misnomer.

"It is true that we were inspired by 'Shaolin Soccer,' " Kemeyama said, "but this is a completely separate project, so in fact it isn't a follow-up at all."

Working with actor-director Chow, who is head of Hong Kong production company the Star Overseas, was something Kameyama relished.

"It has been a great experience collaborating with him," he said. "There were, of course, cultural differences between Hong Kong and Japan, but by taking time and working together, we have been able to come out with a production that has a lot more to offer than just action."

"Shaolin Girl" was directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro, who also worked with Kameyama on 2003's "Bayside Shakedown 2," Japan's highest-grossing nonanime title with ¥17.4 billion at the domestic boxoffice. Shaolin is an ancient Buddhist monastery that lends its name to a form of kung fu.

Shibasaki, who had theatrical success with "Dororo" and captured huge TV ratings with Fuji's own "Galileo," underwent a year of training for the role to enable her to do her own stunts and look convincing at Shaolin.

"She started out building up her physical strength for the first three months, then went on to learn the basic Shaolin movements for the next three months," Kameyama said. "Then, for the remaining six months, she did actual Shaolin training."

While Kameyama is aware of the difficulties foreign-language films face in the U.S., he believes "Shaolin Girl" has qualities that will shine through.