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:
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.