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Ninja Condors (1987)

Wu Kuo-Ren and Alexander Lou are up to their old tricks again and if you’ve seen The Super Ninja, Wu Tang vs Ninja or any of their other collaborations, you’ll have some idea what to expect from Ninja Condors. However, this turns the action and the melodrama up to inconceivable levels to produce a hugely entertaining piece of work; easily one of the best productions to bear the Filmark production house’s name. Well, I say “best”… I suppose you’ve got to be quite deep into the ninja hole before this is in any way “good” but, on the other hand, a film that delivers so earnestly on its promise of excessive ninjing, creative mindless violence and wildly OTT dialogue, can’t possibly be deemed “bad” in my eyes. I loved it.

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The first few minutes of the film play more like a trailer than an opening – scenes of close-up action frantically cut together with little concession to whether the audience will follow what’s going on. To begin with, a man is murdered. He’s dragged along a beach by a rope tied to the back of a motorbike while his child watches on in horror. The kid gets rescued by a friendly cop named Tyler and we flash forward some twenty years to find the kid is now a man and played by Alexander Lou. His name is Brian but he’s better known as “The White Eagle”, part of an elite band of ninja assassins who work for a super-evil crime boss called Lucifer. Still in this opening montage, Lucifer takes Brian to the home of some other criminals, tells him “Those are the men who killed your father!” and lets Brian ninj the Hell out of them with blowpipes and shuriken. That’s pretty much an entire film’s worth of plot for this genre normally, but barely a prologue for Ninja Condors!

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Lucifer’s goal in life is to exterminate all his rivals. The “cops” (who all look and act like they’ve been cast from an under-achieving high school drama club) are on his trail but Lucifer has decided they all need to die too. In a haze of megalomaniacal paranoia, Lucifer questions Brian’s loyalty, kidnaps Tyler, crucifies him against a fence and asks Brian to murder him. Brian refuses so Lucifer gets another of his ninjas to take a chainsaw to Tyler’s pregnant wife’s stomach (!). Brian, horrified by this, is thrown out of the ninja club but it’s not all bad. He decides that, along with his cockney girlfriend Mabel, they can use this as a reason to go live their dream of owning a chicken farm. But it’s no good. They’re about to leave for the country but Lucifer’s planted a bomb in Brian’s car! It blows Mabel sky high!

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Phew. All of this is still only covering the first act. The film’s story begins in earnest when Brian – now on the run from Lucifer – meets a live-wire vagrant named Eddie (Eugene Thomas!) in a bar. Eddie is busy hustling people for drinks and flirting with girls. He finds one at a table with four white guys and lays down the classic pick-up line “I can read palms. Do you know what I see in yours? I see four honkies, honking out on ya!” but it doesn’t go down so well and a fight breaks out. When he drags Brian into the brawl, they soon become unlikely but firm friends.

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From there the plot almost becomes a proper old-fashioned kung fu story about two brawling wanderers on the run from an evil master. Brian and Eddie get into all kinds of trouble. They’re arrested for vagrancy (“We might get the electric chair!” screams Eddie. “You know what I’m talking about! Barbecue!”) and wind up in a dozen fights with various ninjas before eventually making their way to a glorious final showdown at Lucifer’s luxury mansion.

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From a technical point of view, Ninja Condors is pretty awful. It’s horribly photographed and sometimes hard to follow. Alexander Lou’s hairstyle is of dubious continuity, his trademark mullet often changing length within the space of a scene, and there are more errors like this to spot if you’re looking but, really, it’s a lot more fun if you just sit back and enjoy the ninjing. We’ve got exploding ninjas galore, insane ninja rope tricks, magical shuriken that blow things up, disappearing ninjas, ninjas splitting into five and then reforming as one… Not to mention a couple of precious moments unique to Ninja Condors like…

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…NINJAS ON A CAROUSEL…

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…AND NINJAS ON ICE!

The finalé here is absolutely off the chain. It builds up through a series of intensely melodramatic scenes of dialogue that must be seen to be believed. I’m sure the over-earnest dubbing makes them seem sillier than they should be but the words are just fantastic, especially the one where Brian’s master explains to him The True Way Of The Ninja and the one where Eddie and Brian declare their undying friendship on the beach. After this life-or-death scene is set with such severity, Brian and Eddie go utterly nuts in Lucifer’s mansion using anything they can get their hands on as a weapon (model aeroplanes, goat’s skulls, you name it), expending somewhere in the region of a billion bullets, and pushing the body count way higher than is usual for a film of this budget. Overkill doesn’t even begin to cover it. To make it better, Eugene Thomas does the whole thing while wearing a weird Crocodile Dundee outfit with tassled boots.

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The action’s all pretty scrappy but so unbelievably violent and overblown that you won’t care. I can’t even imagine what was going through their heads when they filmed it but it feels sincere. Like they were really trying hard. It feels like they just wanted to give the audience what they loved; big guns, high body counts, natty ninja suits and huge, broadly painted emotions. If this had been played for laughs it would be far less entertaining but the fact that it keeps such a straight face even at the heights of its lunacy makes Ninja Condors a strange and wonderful picture. Highly recommended.

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Zombie Rival : The Super Ninja Master (1987)

In 1983, someone made a movie called The Undertaker In Sohwa Province, apparently this someone was a Korean filmmaker named “Kim Jung-Yong”, but I can’t find much else about him. The HKMDB credits Jung-Yong as the director of films like Magnificent Natural Fist and Dragon From Shaolin but, on the films themselves, these are attributed to Godfrey Ho. Frequent Ho collaborator Joseph Lai (IFD) released an English dub of The Undertaker In Sohwa Province in 1985 and renamed it Gravedigger. In 1987 a completely re-dubbed and re-cut version of the film (credited to the pseudonym “Charles Lee”) appeared with about 20 minutes of ninja footage spliced in that feels like the work of Godfrey Ho (although “Charles Lee” has been used by frequent IFD co-conspirator Lee Chiu so it’s entirely possible he directed the ninja footage?)… So did Ho/Lee take an old Korean film and mash it up with ninjas or was Ho ninja-remixing his own earlier films? Hard to know for sure but, flying in the apparent face of reason, this last version – now known as Zombie Rival : The Super Ninja Master (aka Zombie vs Ninja) – is by far the most widely released version of the film.

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The version I watched was the UK VHS Zombie Rival released on the mysterious Cine Ninja label (with a Conan-esque fantasy cover that has only an abstract connection to the film itself). The story starts with a bucktoothed old master named Master T summoning hopping vampires in his psychedelic magic chamber. He beats them up as the credits roll and we move into more conventional kung fu plotting. There’s a bad guy called Titus who’s controlling the province, charging extortionate taxes, persecuting villagers and being an all-round rotter. He and his cohorts steal a bunch of gold from an old ginseng seller named Chen, killing him in the process. Chen’s son Ethan (played by Ho regular Elton Chong) swears vengeance.

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Ethan isn’t up to much but he stumbles upon Master T whom, it transpires, is the local undertaker and rides a cool bison wagon. Ethan takes a job with him. I mean, why wouldn’t he? That bison is awesome! The work is pretty vague though. Mostly, Master T says things like “Go get us a body and some business!” and sends Ethan out on various goose chases that lead to a fight. Meanwhile, all sorts of ninja maneuvering is afoot behind the scenes. Ninja Master Duncan is another of Master T’s students (“Duncan Somebody, number one pupil of some unknown master!” is how he’s described by one character and that’s as much as we really ever know about him). He wears a natty yellow suit, giant silver shoulder pads and a headband that says “NINJA” and he’s doing his best to wipe out all of Titus’s ninja apprentices. Unfortunately, a highly trained evil ninja (who wears giant gold lamé shoulder pads, obvs) is on Titus’s side so you just know it’s going to end with more fighting…

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If you wondered where the zombies come in, this is all thanks to Master T and his unique brand of training. As well as giving Ethan some much-needed tuition in coffin fu (and it is undeniably entertaining watching a dude duff up another dude, with a coffin strapped to his back!), he also frequently raises the dead to use them in combat exercises. Ethan fights his way through a series of reanimated corpses to the point where his own fighting style is influenced by them. When he hands Titus and his henchmen their asses at the end, Ethan integrates into his regular kung fu a stiff fighting style like a zombie (and looks kinda like he’s doing a particularly kicky robot dance).

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As you can gather, there are actually some very cool and original ideas in the source film but either they weren’t enough to sustain a whole movie or something’s gone horribly wrong in its transition from The Undertaker In Sohwa Province to Zombie Rival : The Super Ninja Master (beyond just the title). Although it’s all well shot (certainly better than your average Filmark/IFD stuff) the final piece doesn’t hold together. The first third is entertaining, the second third is incoherent as it gets bogged down in irrelevant comedy side characters, and the final third super-slow; an endless final fight with choreography that’s competent but never dazzling.

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It also sets stuff up that sounds more exciting than what it delivers. There’s a scene where two characters disguise themselves as dolls to infiltrate a building but, sadly, discard the doll masks before the fighting starts, which is disappointing as I was all geared up for some doll fu. Also, Ninja Master Duncan is constantly talking about “Dragon’s Fire”, an ancient kung fu style that hasn’t been used for hundreds of years. Apparently he learned it from Master T but neither T, Ethan nor Duncan use anything that could possibly count as such a rare, powerful style. I kind of hoped that, at least, the final ninja fight would deliver Dragon’s Fire (especially after the wonderful – almost Flight Of The Conchords-esque – threat “TELL HIM DRAGON’S FIRE BURNS HOT!”) but there’s nothing more outrageous than a bit of swordplay and backflipping. That said, “I told him dragon’s fire burned hot” is a wonderful closing line to anything, even if no one’s quite earned the right to say it…

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On the whole, this is quite low-key in terms of its ninjing. There are a few black-clad swordfighting ninjas in the source film and plenty of Power Rangers/Mortal Kombat style Ho ones tarting about in the other footage but no real standout scenes of crazy magic or insane stunts. Instead, you end up feeling that the source film would’ve been better if they’d just kept the ninjas out of it, and this isn’t what you want from IFD at all.

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Lady Ninja Kaede (2007)

Rule 34 : If it exists, there is porn of it.

Seems this applies even for ninjas. While doing one of my regular eBay sweeps for new ninja DVDs, I saw a double pack of movies called Lady Ninja Kaede. I like lady ninjas and, even more than that, I like surprises so bought it without really looking up what it was (I did a quick check to see it wasn’t a retitling of something I already had but that was it). Turns out it’s part of a whole subgenre of ultra-low budget “ninja erotica” from Japan, mostly made from about 2003 to 2009. In addition to the two Lady Ninja Kaede films, there are also six Lady Ninja Kasumi films and a bunch of others like The Naked Sword, Ninja She-Devil, Twin Blades of the Ninja and ten volumes of something called Ninja Vixens. This stuff is quite far down the rabbit hole but, in the interests of covering all facets of ninjas in pop culture on this blog, I have now watched the first Lady Ninja Kaede film.

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It is, as you may have already guessed, quite bad. If you’re of the right age and into the wrong movies, you’ll probably remember the work of Misty Mundae. Lady Ninja Kaede makes the Misty Mundae movies look like they were shot by Kurosawa. I’m really struggling to work out who’d make it (no information is available about director “Takayuki Kagawa”), who’d release it (I’m looking at you, Tokyo Shock) or who’d want to watch it. Imagine a ninja film made for even less budget than Godfrey Ho would spend, but with the fighting replaced with super-tame softcore sex – all shot an on actual home video camcorder – and you’re getting there. I have to admit, there were a few sparks of a surrealist imagination hard at work in the way they combined Ninjutsu technique with sex (more on this later) but, otherwise, this was an endurance test. I hope it at least counts as several points towards my degree in Ninjology.

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A voiceover tells us Lady Ninja Kaede is set in the Edo period but everyone’s wearing so much black fishnet it may as well be the Emo period. Kaede is a young peasant girl who watches her older sister Koharo raped by a wandering ronin and his shady buddy (who wears a cat mask to hide his identity). Ashamed that she’s brought dishonor to her husband Kichiemon, Koharu hangs herself, leaving Kaede and Kichiemon devastated. It is a pretty grim, tragic series of events so all rather incongruous when it’s interrupted with unrelated, frivolous comedy clips of Kaede showing the audience various “ninja techniques” like “transformation into a beast” (she gets on all fours and roars at the camera like a lion while someone offscreen throws a ball at her). There are also a few super-catchy but inappropriate J-pop numbers on the soundtrack. One croons sweetly how “it’s because of the era” as its hook, when characters cry about how awfully women are treated.

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Still, once you get used to the offensively scattershot tone of the film (and admit that the closing song – “Harmony of Love” – is really good), something almost like a plot develops. A lady ninja named Yumeama, who specialises in “the sexual field” of Ninjutsu (!) has been imprisoned in a convent by the Shogun but, with the help of an elderly man named Jii, she escapes. While hiding in Kichiemon’s attic, the two of them learn about Koharu’s suicide and, touched by this horrific story, become determined to find out what really happened. Meanwhile, Kichiemon and Koharu embark on a revenge mission of their own (and Kaede has a particularly long journey ahead since, as the title suggests, she is destined to become a ninja)…

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I actually didn’t see some of the story twists coming and, while there was nothing mindblowing, it was better than the lousy production values and awful dialogue suggested it would be. There isn’t really a lot of sex in the film, all things considered, in that there’s only three major scenes of it but they go on forever (approximately 10 minutes each) and kill the pace every time the story starts to get going. No one takes their pants off at any time in the film (presumably due to Japanese film rules about not showing genitalia?) so it’s really not exciting, except perhaps for people who’ve never ever seen a pair of naked breasts before (and, let’s face it, if you’ve watched even a handful – no pun intended – of the films I’ve mentioned on this blog, you will have seen a pair of naked breasts before). The stuff between the sex is actually more enjoyable, especially when it goes weird in the second half (like how Koharu’s ghost rocks up and makes all kinds of proclamations of hatred and bloodshed in a sing-song voice that makes it sound like a rendition of “happy birthday”).

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In its defense, there are a few utterly bonkers examples of ninja magic that – as far as I know – aren’t available in any other film. There is “Ninja Technique : Confession From The Honey Pot” in which Yumeama seduces a guy into giving her oral sex but has used ninja magic to “turn love juice into confessional medicine”, which makes him tell only the truth. There is also the “Ninja Technique : Like A Dried Fish” which involves literally sucking the life out of someone with a combination of coy simulated fellatio and bad CGI. Even the more traditional ninja techniques like trilocation have a ‘sexy’ twist here – when Kaede trilocates, one of her three incarnations loses her top in the process (although this isn’t a surprise because almost every ninja move Kaede tries causes her to lose her top at some stage).

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If this is sounding like you’d watch, I can only apologise for making it appear better than it is. Despite the craziness, Lady Ninja Kaede is still a tough film to sit through. In addition to the many other flaws, it’s very badly acted to the point where even a rare good line in the script will be murdered in delivery. The guy who plays Kichiemon is sort of okay and Yumemara has one scene where she wails in an admirably hammy way but everyone else mumbles their lines and looks like they can’t wait to get home. Kaede is played by an actual XXX porn star called Mai Nadasaka and, while it’s easy to see why she was cast in the role, she never really comes into her own (uh, no pun intended) and even looks a little embarrassed at times. Like she’d rather just get back to making proper sex films than this nonsense. Apparently Kaede is recast in the sequel but I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch that just yet. I think even I have my limits as to what I’ll do for ninjas.

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Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1983?)

Challenge of the Lady Ninja (aka Never Kiss A Ninja) has been released in the USA as Chinese Super Ninjas 2 (with DVD art boasting that it was shot in Shaw Scope) but it bears no relation to the Chang Cheh original, has no connection with the Shaw Brothers and is a far cry from that standard of production. It’s a Taiwanese film made by Tso Nam Lee but don’t let that put you off. Personally, I have a real soft spot for Lee’s work. In addition to making one the better Bruceploitation films – Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger – he has an impressively consistent catalogue of excellent low-budget kung-fu films like Shaolin vs Lama and Fatal Needles vs Flying Fists. When his name’s attached, you’re in safe hands and pretty much guaranteed a good time. It’s not clear when he shot Challenge Of The Lady Ninja but the age of the cast suggests it was 1982 – 1983. IMDB lists it as 1987 but I think this is just because that’s when Tomas Tang’s Filmark picked it up for distribution, at the height of the ninja boom. There’s no way this was shot in 1987. Anyway, housekeeping out the way, let’s see what we’ve got:

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It’s the 1940s. Hui San Yang (better known as Elsa Yeung) plays the titular ninja Wu Siu-Wai. She’s been away from her native China for 17 years, training to be a ninja. The film begins with a pretty insane training sequence where she, dressed in flame red ninja robes, has a wirework-heavy fight with a group of black-clad ninjas. At first, she is beaten (these guys have FLAMING SHIELDS!) but uses the art of ninja illusion to defeat them. With a deft twirl, she turns into a pink bikini-clad belly-dancer whose charms are so irresistible that the entranced black ninjas lose their concentration and are defeated by a surprise smoke bomb. After using tri-location and duffing up the ninja school’s star pupil (who is annoyed that he wasn’t taught tri-location (or “Moving Shadow” as they call it here)), she is given a special ninja badge and anointed the first ever lady ninja. “Kung fu has no borders,” her master says proudly, before dropping the bombshell that, by the way, her father is dead.

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Devastated, Siu-Wai returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai and finds things have changed. Not only is her father dead but he’s been killed by Lee Tung, her fiancé. Tung has turned traitor and now serves a ruthless Japanese general, blackmailing Chinese businessmen and murdering Japan’s enemies. In case you don’t believe how evil he is, they play a bar of the Imperial March from Star Wars when he first appears onscreen. Siu-Wai vows deadly revenge on her former lover and forms a band of lady warriors to take him out. “Anything men can do, women can do also… sometimes, even better!” she declares and, at that point, I wondered if I was watching perhaps the first truly feminist ninja film…

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…unfortunately this theory was shot to pieces about ten minutes later when she starts training her new recruits – a travelling circus swordswoman, a brothel-keeper named Chi Chi and a deep-voiced butch woman with a peculilarly dubbed French(?) accent – and we realise that the lady ninja conceit is mostly an excuse to leer over nubile actresses. Although there’s no actual nudity in the training sequences, there are extended stretching exercises with lingering crotch-shots on lycra tights; there is an utterly gratuitous three-way mud wrestling scene; and some Moving Shadow work in which the girls seduce dopey men with gyration-heavy sexydances then disappear, only to pop up behind them and kill them with a shuriken.

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Once fully trained as lady ninjas (never mind that it took Siu-Wai 17 years and these other three about 17 minutes), they hatch plans for Lee Tung’s destruction. Their first attempt – outright group assault on his house – fails when they encounter his super-strong bodyguards so they decide, instead, to pick off his entourage one by one until there’s no one left to protect him. The bodyguards are all great villains – there’s an expert swordsman who throws spider-webs, a whip-toting Bolo Yeung style character (and God, how I wish it’d actually been Bolo), Robert Tai (who would later direct the infamous Ninja : The Final Duel) as a Samurai with a blue bug tattoo on his head and blue eyebrows, and a female Tae Kwon Do expert (Yin Su-li) with a gold headband and a leather mini-skirt.

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There are many fights as the lady ninjas take out each of these crazy characters, with an eye-popping highlight being the battle between Yin Su-Li and Hui San Yang. For reasons known only to the director, Su-Li gets her mini-skirt ripped off and then runs into some kind of basement wrestling ring that gets filled up with water. Yang’s dress soon comes off to reveal the most ridiculous handprint bodystocking underneath and the two of them start doing kung fu but soon descend into just wrestling one another in the water. It’s all fairly innocent but somehow feels super-sleazy and lecherous, perhaps on account of how wholly unnecessary it is.

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Meanwhile a mysterious dude dressed in a skeleton suit patrols the dark – sometimes stepping into the fray by throwing fire – and, weirdly, it all leads to a surprisingly good twist ending that leaves you feeling like you’ve watched a film with a decent plot rather than just a bunch of sleaze and fighting. The sets and the costumes – while arguably far from authentic – are all nice, it’s well shot and the fight choreography is great, low-down, dirty and very Taiwanese in style. As for the ninjing, we get a lot of top-end magic stuff here – in addition to all the tri-locating, smoke bombs, giant spider-webs and flying, the final fight involves some wicked shuriken tricks, a burrowing ninja and my personal favourite way to end a fight (and indeed a film): an exploding loser.

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It’s by no means a classic but Challenge of the Lady Ninja is a solid effort that gives you a few things you’ve not seen before and blends sexploitation and ninjing in an effective, enjoyable way. There are some classic one-liners (“A NINJA CAN GO ANYWHERE!” and “YOU’LL NEVER GET ANYWHERE TORTURING A NINJA!” spring to mind) and Hui San Yang gives a great lead performance. She’s game for pretty much anything; she can act, she can fight, clearly has no fear about doing mad wire stunts and looks fabulous in a whole host of awesome costumes from the skimpy bodystocking through a couple of male drag looks and, of course, her fierce red ninja suit. Between her and director Lee;s effort, they drag this ludicrous film up and make it actually a fun watch for eager ninjologists after something a little different.

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Duel To The Death (1983)

I sometimes find it hard to describe to people the kind of films I love because my ideal is pretty much pulp but done well; genre films treated with the same creative respect as non-genre films. A picture can be well-made, intelligent and carefully crafted, yet I still need some sense of the flamboyant or the outrageous to ignite my soul. On the other hand, if a film is all trashiness and outrage, ineptly executed, it can be the most tedious, joyless experience. Balancing my love of quality cinema and the needs of a mind reared on the decade of bad taste and excess (the 1980s) is difficult, which is why films that achieve it are such rare gems. Duel To The Death (1983) hits the bullseye and the whole target explodes in a shower of mystical ninja sparks. It’s perfect.

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Its success, ironically, could be because it sits in a tricky place within the history of martial arts films. The old style of lavish, period epics were on the way out, replaced in popularity by the burgeoning school of high octane modern martial arts movies led by Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen et al. Frequently, traditional martial arts films from the early 80s feel slow, dated and a little lost, but Duel To The Death seizes the best of the past and hurtles full pelt into the future. Astonishingly, a debut film for director Ching Siu Tung (who would later go on to helm the classic Chinese Ghost Story trilogy and choreograph Hero and House Of Flying Daggers), it has the flair, style and depth of a Shaws movie but with the lightning pace and insane OTT stunts that would soon become synonymous with 80s Hong Kong cinema. It also has ninjas. Lots and lots and lots of ninjas. If you’ve not seen Duel To The Death, make sure you prepare yourself, because you’re going to have multiple ninjasms.

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The titular duel is one that takes place every ten years at The House Of Holy Swords pitting both China and Japan’s greatest swordsmen against one another to prove whose martial arts are superior. This year, China has picked a Shaolin scholar named Bo Ching Wan (Damian Lau). He’s also known as The Lord of Swords so you know he means business. That said, his approach is one of learning and he doesn’t believe that men should fight to the death but instead use duels to educate one another on technique, mutually improving their combat. Japan, on the other hand, has picked a Samurai known as Hashimoto (Norman Chu) who is driven entirely by victory. As he heads off to the House Of Holy Swords, he kills his own master in a fight and his master is honoured to have met a death at the hands of such a skilled swordsman since mortality revolves entirely around success and failure for these Samurai. Once they’ve lost, there’s no point in living.

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When the two fighters reach The House Of Holy Swords, they settle in to the local nightlife and are shown around the eerie subterranean caves where the names of former duellists are carved into the walls. They meet the Master of the House and his beautiful daughter Sing Lam (Flora Cheung), whose own skills with a blade are formidable. It all seems pleasant enough but soon they realise something corrupt is afoot. Armies of ninjas stalk the night. Betrayals and conspiracies are afoot. Ugly politics rear their head and innocent lives are squandered. Soon Bo Ching Wan and Hashimoto – two honourable men of opposing views – must come together to fight the common enemy that threatens to destroy both of their worlds.

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The atmosphere is great. The sets and lighting are beautiful and you really feel the Ming Dynasty come to life. There are some sublime moments that haunt the senses. The romance of classic Wuxia is there, certainly, perfectly pitched; poignant but never too sentimental or overpowering against the overall themes of honour and enlightenment. What’s particularly painful is how grueling the film is to the characters you come to really care about. You get a lot of philosophical meat on the bones of the fighting which makes the action all the more meaningful. There are some genuinely emotional fight scenes and at least two had me gasping aloud in horror at their outcome. Where Duel To The Death really excels though is mixing this intelligence and compassion with some of the most brainblastingly insane action you’ve ever seen. Being Wuxia, there is obviously a ton of wire-work but don’t let it put you off if you’re not a fan of the genre. This stuff is CRAZY. There might not be a lot of actual kung fu but the stunts are off the scale and the way the wires are used frequently take the breath away.

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Besides this astonishing choreography (blink and you’ll miss something fantastic – there’s cool stuff happening about twice every second when the action’s at its peak) and the nutty tertiary cast – including a drunken monkey master and his talking bird called “Dragon” – you have ninjing of the absolute highest order. You might want to skip this paragraph if you plan on watching the film because seeing this stuff unfold before your disbelieving eyes is part of the fun. Within the first five minutes you’ve seen a pack of ninjas turn themselves into human fireworks but this is just a entrée. They fly through the trees. They descend from the skies en masse floating on giant kites. They make bombs. They bilocate. They trilocate. They are sliced. They are diced. They are bisected. They leap through their bisected buddies’ bodies. They combine themselves into one giant ninja (think Voltron) and then come apart again. There is even one scene where a ninja’s clothes rip off mid-fight to reveal a completely naked woman underneath, thus distracting the holy monk she’s fighting. Naked-fu is not unique but this is certainly one of the most unexpected instances of it. I think I might’ve even cheered when it happened.

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In spite of this surreal outrageousness, the film somehow holds itself together and the plot (more coherent than it maybe sounds) comes to a perfect end. The final 15 minutes of this film are so tense I just sat there holding my breath for most of it, occasionally stopping to yell swear words or make wincing noises. The climactic duel of the title is remarkably brutal – a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic camerawork, crashing waves and gore-drenched ultraviolence – and it leads to a bleak, challenging end that’s only fitting to a film of this calibre. The way director Ching Siu Tung weaves all these elements together makes it feel like he’s an old hand, yet he possesses the energy of youth, combining high and low culture aspects as skillfully as he does lavish beauty and savage violence. It really has it all, does Duel To The Death. With its extreme contrasts, it keeps viewers on their toes even some thirty years later and – through the sheer pleasure of how well it works, despite having no right to – it’s easily one of the best martial arts films I’ve seen. If you’re reading this blog and interested in ninjology, it’s essential viewing.

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