My dear ninjologists. The first thing you’ll notice about Jade Dagger Ninja, if and when you watch it, is that there are no ninjas in it. I’m writing about it here so that no one falls into the same trap as I did. There’s also a distinct lack of jade daggers although, you’ll be pleased to know, jade BADGERS play a major part. No, really. The plot of this baffling Taiwanese Wuxia revolves around a precious statue known as the Purple Jade Badger. Inside the statue is a magical elixir that grants its drinker pretty much infinite power and invincibility so, of course, there’s a wild array of characters who all want it. The title is possibly a mistranslation or possibly just that the distributor couldn’t bear to release a film called Jade Badger. It’s also known, in some countries, as Shaolin Fox Conspiracy and given that the Purple Jade Badger looks a bit like a fox, this makes slightly more sense. Although there’s still nothing to do with Shaolin in it. Nutso titling aside though, this one’s surprisingly worth your time.
The opening scenes revolve around an impending wedding between Yu Long (Tien Ho) and Aurora (played by Doris Lung, one of the least appealing names I’ve heard for such a highly appealing actress). Unfortunately, a gang known as Heartbreak Red – led by the mysterious Heartbreak Warrior – are going around sabotaging weddings! It’s never really clear how they do this (rape and murder seem to be the general gist) but luckily the wandering legend Lu Xiaofeng – aka The Flying Fox – (Tien Peng) rocks up to save the day. OR DOES HE? It’s entirely possible he has a hidden agenda because Aurora’s father – a noble man of great honour – is in possession of the Purple Jade Badger.
Somehow, a whole host of bizarre and colourful characters flow in and out of the story, all trying to lie, cheat, steal or kill their way to the Badger and its secrets. There’s Chief Chow and his gang of notorious assassins known as the Four Kings. There’s some kind of sex witch in the woods who wears a veil made out of what seems to be a lampshade. There’s a shadowy almost ninja-like character called the Sunset Fairy. There’s some guy with a throaty voice who talks in bad poetry. What’s fun about the plot is that, with so many people at large, you never know who’s going to die and when so it’s quite unpredictable.
The whole thing culminates with a very theatrical showdown of pseudo-Shakespearian proportions before we finally see what happens when you drink the magical elixir… and, let me tell you, it’s not at all what you’re expecting. Unless you are as much of a crackpot as the people who made this amazingly mad film.
Jade Dagger Ninja (I keep wanting to type Jade Badger Ninja) is a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood. It’s a very inexpensive picture but, shoddy as they are, there’s a certain beauty to the period costumes and the Shaws-lite sets. If nothing else, it’s colorful. The story may not entirely make sense but it’s weird enough to keep you hooked and the dialogue is absolutely brilliant, full of zinging one liners. My personal favourite comes after The Flying Fox defeats the Four Kings and scoffs “So You’re the famous Four Kings, are you? Well, you’re no four-king good!” I feel like this excellent pun has to have been added in the English dub rather than translated, which makes me think the dubbers were having a very good time indeed…
In fact, the dubbing here is a thing of beauty, one of the stars of the show. Some may class it as “bad dubbing” because it’s so over-the-top and unrealistic but I felt like, not only did the cartoonishness fit the heightened mood of the film, but it had an infectious sense of fun. There’s some amazingly full-on deliveries of nonsense lines and a whole host of hilarious accents (the falsetto Buddhist monk is a favourite but almost every character has a perfectly enunciated line in camp).
So yeah, if you’re looking for daggers and ninjas go elsewhere but if you can appreciate the true joy of 70s Taiwanese kung fu cinema at its weirdest, Jade Dagger Ninja is a must-see. It’s a film from a long gone era, the likes of which we’ll never see again. If you tried to recreate (or even satirise) the magic of this now, you’d never be able to capture its unself-conscious, heartfelt strangeness.