Downtrodden orphan and martial arts student Fang Shijie (Jay Chou) cycles past the basketball court every day just to catch a glimpse of his secret love, Lily (Charlene Choi), who serves as team mascot for her college team. When Fang uses his supernatural kung fu skills to save down-and-out Zhen Li (Eric Tsang) from a legion of triad thugs, he finds a mentor but is kicked out of kung fu school by his corrupt, vindictive, talentless master (Wang Gang). Sensing Fang’s talents could make him a superstar on the basketball court, fast-talking Li enrols him in the local team amidst much media hype over his orphaned status. His mad, mystical ball skills win over an initially skeptical Lily and her brother, team captain Ding-Wei (Chen Po-Lin) whose personal problems have left him a dissolute drunk. To Fang’s dismay, Lily already harbours a hopeless, unrequited crush on star player, Xiao Lan (Baron Chen Chu-He). Nevertheless, he continues honing his skills as the team face an arduous journey towards the national championships.
Somehow it is heartening to know a past master of trash filmmaking like Chu Yen Ping remains active to this day. Much like frequent collaborator Wong Jing, the Taiwanese writer-director weathered the tumultuous shifting Asian film market with his steadfastly populist output, slowly seguing from low-budget schlockmeister into a purveyor of glossy, big budget junk. He was the man behind much beloved trash gems Golden Queens Commando (1984) and Fantasy Mission Force (1982), helmed the all-star exploitation effort Island of Fire (1992), made a brief move into seriousness with brutal gangster thriller Requital (1992) and scored a hit children’s film franchise with Shaolin Popeye (1994) and its sequels.
With Kung Fu Dunk, Yen Ping hits a triple-whammy commercial prospect. Taking his cue from Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s international smash Shaolin Soccer (2001), he serves up another sports themed kung fu comedy, based on the hugely popular manga Slam Dunk - previously adapted into an anime movie in 1994 followed by several sequels - and starring pop mega-star Jay Chou. The film is laden with the kind of CGI pyrotechnics that marked Chow Sing-Chi’s crowd-pleaser but replaces his feel-good philosophising with a far more cynical satire of the sports industry and media manipulation, even sending up the moral precepts underlining martial arts as so much hypocritical bunkum. Whereas the anime and manga serial argue that raw talent is not enough and a hero should knuckle down, train hard and be a team player, the live action version muddles through these themes along with several subplots including Ding-Wei’s alcoholism, Xiao Lan mourning his dead girlfriend, and Fang’s search for his missing parents.
Given the film is so chock full of talent from martial arts legends Leung Kar-Yan, Shaolin Soccer veteran Ng Man Tat and comedienne Yan Ni, there is a fair amount of fun to be had, particularly in the astonishing action sequences choreographed by A Chinese Ghost Story auteur Ching Siu Tung. Jay Chou proves a very endearing and charismatic presence as lovably earnest goofball Fang Shijie. Along with performing his trademark Manda-rap numbers on the soundtrack he acquits himself well both on the basketball court and in the Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts melees that undoubtedly got him noticed by the producers behind The Green Hornet (2011). Story-wise however, Kung Fu Dunk is rather aimless, struggling to accommodate all its star turns (gifted comedienne Charlene Choi has little to work with) amidst sloppy shifts from pathos to farce with a few too many non-sequitors.
The finale wherein Fang’s four martial arts masters use their mystical kung fu powers to help him through the championship (in what would be a clear violation of NBA rules!) proves genuinely amusing, not least because Chu Yen Ping throws in a surprise twist alluding to the climax of Superman (1978) that is so outrageous one can’t help but applaud. Even so, the film drags past this obvious end point into a maudlin soap opera finish. Although Fang’s romance with Lily is established in the opening scene, it proves less important than his relationship with the fatherly Li. In fact it is barely resolved.