Legendary martial arts director Chang Cheh continued pumping out the punching many years after his famous work for the Shaw Brothers and many years after his style went out of fashion. His final film, Ninja In Ancient China (1993) isn’t great but it is sort of delightful in how slavishly it adheres to tradition in spite of Chinese cinema’s changing times. Bear in mind that by the time this was released, John Woo had happened, brought Heroic Bloodshed to Hong Kong and was merrily on his way to Hollywood. Cat III nasties, dripping with the gooey juices of extreme sex and violence, had exploded and were already drying up. Tsui Hark, Corey Yuen, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, etc, were making kung fu crossover pics whose action scenes were wild, OTT and utterly modern. By contrast, you could’ve told me Ninja In Ancient China was made in 1977 and I would have happily believed you.
The plot is a little hard to follow on account of all existing prints being in Mandarin and only having the hardcoded dubious “Engrish” subtitles on them, so you’ll have to forgive me if I mess up any of the nuance. It’s set in the distant past (Tang Dynasty maybe?) and an evil general named Suen Chuek is ruling some province or other with an iron fist. On the other side of the political fence is a guy named Lord Hui and there’s an old master known as Taoist Yu who has a group of apprentices. They all want to stop Suen Chuek. Unfortunately, many characters are introduced via untranslated Chinese text on the screen so don’t ask me who the Hell “Cho-Cho” was or what “General Yuen” has to do with the price of eggs but, really, the story’s focus is on Taoist Yu’s apprentices because… they are ninjas.
It’s an unusual film in that it’s Chinese but the ninjas, despite their training being rooted in Japanese technique (normally a surefire sign of an untrustworthy nature), are actually the good guys. They’re a plucky band of proto-Power-Rangers teens who are sickly-sweet in how goody-goody they are until Taoist Yu is murdered and they swear revenge. He has trained them in the Five Elements technique which allows Chang Cheh to return to one of his most popular motifs (as seen in Five Element Ninjas). As before, we have metal, water, wood, fire and earth ninjas, all of whom showcase their talents in an opening montage.
The metal ninja and the water ninja are in love and, posing as brother and sister, they infiltrate Suen Chuek’s palace. This is where things get interesting. Suen Chuek and his Madam treat them with respect and shower them with riches which puts them in a difficult quandary of allegiance. Will they avenge Taoist Yu or will they turn to the allure of the dark side, that may not even be all that dark at all? Idealogies clash as hard as swords in this one and it all leads to a suitably tragic finalé. That said, despite the melodrama, the final brawl is disappointing. It’s loaded with extras in the background but doesn’t actually involve that many people (just check out the dudes standing around with flaming torches twitching about like they’ve got some kind of video game glitch); a reminder that, while the film may be lavish by ninja standards, Cheh was not working on a studio budget.
Despite the old-fashioned style being part of its charm, Ninja In Ancient China is hopelessly dated. It’s leisurely paced and the choreography, while slick and well co-ordinated, is just not that exciting. Sure, we get ninjas fighting with flaming sticks, burrowing underground, leaping out of the water and climbing trees but it never kicks off with the energy of some of its madder, lower-budget counterparts and it isn’t quite impressive or emotional enough on its own to get away with such restraint. There are gory bits, typical to Cheh’s style, with boards of nails, spears and arrows jabbing into people and some colourful arterial sprays but, again, it’s nothing we’ve not seen before and tame by 1993’s standards. Perhaps the most unique element of the film is that bizarre exotic synthesiser score that sounds like Kraftwerk covering Martin Denny. I expect it may be stolen from somewhere – just on account of how badly it fits the movie – but don’t know where from. It’s pretty cool though.
As a result of its politeness, Ninja In Ancient China is really just an interesting curio. It’s cool to find Chang Cheh doing elemental ninjas again (in a far lesser known film) and hard not to admire, for better or worse, a master who’s not willing to surrender his style right up to the end. It may not be a bang but it’s not a whimper of a swansong either – more a gentle, nostalgic farewell. I’d recommend it to existing fans but ninja newbies may find this a little placid compared with some of what’s on offer out there.