Something a little different this week in honour of what would’ve been Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of my twin obsessions colliding, Bruce Lee and ninjas. Although this doesn’t happen at all in the misleadingly named Ninja Vs Bruce Lee (which features premier Bruce clone Bruce Le but no ninjas) and happens if you squint in The Ninja Strikes Back (which features Bruce Le fighting ninjas), perhaps the purest example is in Datasoft’s classic 8-bit computer game Bruce Lee.
I’ve said it before but if you watch a film by Lee Tso-Nam, you’re pretty much always guaranteed a good time. He was a low-budget Taiwanese director most active in the late 70s and early 80s whose rough’n’ready style and energetic approach to entertainment made for some minor martial arts classics. More often than not, you’ll find his films released now on budget labels like Vengeance Video or Kung Fu Theater and sold for about £1 a piece. It’s a shame they’ve been relegated to shoddy transfers and bargain bins because Taiwan’s output from this era is a fascinating part of exploitation/grindhouse history and Lee Tso-Nam was almost certainly its most reliable exponent. Sadly, he only made two ninja films but both are well worth any ninjologist’s time; the utterly mad Challenge Of The Lady Ninja and this, A Life Of Ninja (aka Deadly Life Of Ninja aka Ninja: Grandmasters of Death)…
A Life Of Ninja opens with some exposition about the history of ninjas (or “Nin Zas” as the dubious subtitles on the Mandarin print read). We hear about the ruthless training methods of the legendary Iga clan and watch as three lady ninjas mud-wrestle in their underwear. Not sure how factually accurate this is, in terms of how ninjutsu was taught in the Iga Province, but it certainly gets things started with a bang before the credits have even finished rolling.
After this barely relevant preamble, we skip forward to the present day and begin our story in earnest. It is a rare beast in terms of genre because A Life Of Ninja is one of very few Ninja Whodunnits out there. The story revolves around Chan Ming Fu, a businessman and a philanderer. No one really likes him, including his own wife and sister-in-law, so when a hit is taken out on him, the suspect list is a long as your bokken. Whoever is out to get Chan wants to make sure it’s done right so has hired a ninja to do the job. The ninja poisons and stabs his way up through Chan’s cohorts (including a couple of Psycho-inspired shower scenes) while incompetent policemen bumble about trying to figure out who’s responsible.
Elsa Yeung (the beautiful but long-suffering veteran of some half-dozen ninja films) plays Chan’s sister-in-law and she’s determined to get to the bottom of the case herself. She befriends a sardonic kendo teacher named Chau (Chen Kuan Tai) and soon finds out that he has his own ninja past (a slightly far-fetched blood vendetta on the Iga clan for the murder of his ninja master)… Is he in on the murder plot? Or will he be instrumental in stopping it because, as we all know by now, only a ninja can stop another ninja!
Life Of Ninja actually has a reasonable storyline. The identity of the killer (revealed right at the very end, so abruptly you nearly miss it) is hardly a surprise but, apart from this, it’s well structured and engaging enough to keep things moving in between the action. As for the ninjing, there’s plenty of this to be had. The black ninjas and the female kunoichi in red all get a lot of leaping, kicking and spinning around to do, and there’s a few cool scenes of excessive force being utilised (including a very fake looking double decapitation, some eye gouging and a guy getting a car dropped on him).
We get laser-eyed ninja hypnotism, a magical ninja flute and a female ninja riding her victim around like a horse before killing him (no, really), all of which really ups the fun factor. The only downer is some regrettable animal violence. A snake, a bird and some fish get it in the neck so if you’re squeamish about this, best to avoid even the BBFC certified Vengeance Video release because somehow – against policy – these scenes made it through uncut (I’m guessing it perhaps wasn’t even submitted and VV just stuck a “15” (!) cert on themselves).
With the exception of the aforementioned animal stuff, Life Of Ninja is mostly just good dirty fun in a quintessentially Taiwanese style. The dialogue is frequently amusing (“If you should meet a ninja, run away as fast as you can!”), a few groovy stunts with fire, some well-orchestrated gunfights, a sprinkling of good-natured gratuitous nudity and a couple of show-stopping fights, including one between Chen Kuan Tai and the preposterously huge Wong Kin Mi. Honestly, when Wong rocks up it’s like something out of a computer game, so massive is his bulk compared with his co-stars. When he throws Chen Kuan Tai around like a rag doll, you can feel every bruise. It’s a very brutal bout indeed.
The whole thing culminates with a showdown in the ninja cave. This kitschy villain lair is decorated with fairy lights, weird faces dangling on strings and a couple of Sphinx-like statues at either side of some kind of sandstone throne on which the head ninja (Yasuaki Kurata) sits all day. Although the final fight in the cave is atrociously lit, there are a few dangerous tricks with fire-throwing, some solid choreography and an absolutely wacky new “Mole” style of kung fu (aided by sped-up photography) that makes the satirical “Crab” style in Shaolin Challenges Ninja look normal.
This isn’t anything like the best ninja film you’ll see but if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s a dependable way to spend 88 minutes and you’ll definitely get some kicks out of it. The value for money on ninjing is higher than a lot of films with “ninja” in the title and the movie itself is actually well-plotted and watchable, which puts it above most of the cheaper entries in the Boom. The cast is great – Elsa Yeung and Chen Kuan Tai are always on top form and here is no exception – and, for ninjologists looking to broaden their interests, it would make a nice introduction to the wild world of Taiwanese grindhouse cinema.
Ninja Showdown (1986) may not be one of the most talked about films in IFD’s canon, and it’s by no means the craziest, but it fits in nicely as one of the most watchable and (in its way) subdued. Joseph Lai is credited as director with Godfrey Ho providing the “screenplay” but the majority of the footage is spliced in from Chu Yen-Ping’s romantic drama Brother Of The Fields (1983). You might think that taking a bleak tale of doomed love between Taiwanese peasants and cutting it together with brightly coloured ninjas duffing each up and yelling about mystical swords is a disastrous idea but YOU’D BE WRONG. Somehow, this appeals directly to my two great loves – melodrama and ninjing – which is something few other films do.
First of all, let’s talk about the brilliant artwork for the UK VHS release (on the Videoline label). They’ve not only used pretty colours and a pilfered Kawasaki logo to make it seem like a much glossier, more action-packed film than it is but they’ve added probably the most incredible, blunt-force tagline I’ve ever read – “CATACLYSMIC NINJA CLIMAX“. Flip it over and they even attempt to summarise the convoluted plot, claiming it to be a “double-edged thriller”; the most diplomatic way I’ve ever heard to describe an IFD cut-and-paste movie. Good work all round. (Collectors take note though : there are some minor shuriken scenes and a little bit of bloody swordplay cut from this UK print, sadly…)
The film itself is set in “The South Village”, a poverty-stricken dive somewhere in Taiwan. The Purple Ninja Empire control the place and extort the peasants with blackmail and violence. Two young kids – Sally and Tony (dubbed by grown adults, which makes it a bit freaky) – dream of one day escaping from this tyranny. Using what little money her parents have saved, Sally is sent off to join the Peking Opera while Tony, uh, goes to get ninja training with Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison reprising his seminal role from multiple IFD movies).
As ever, Gordon has some problems of his own to address though. He sits at the head of the Silver Ninja Empire who are currently in possession of the Ninja Sword Of Justice, an artefact that – while never actually explained – obviously grants its owner tremendous ninja power. Unfortunately, the evil Purple Ninjas have designs on it too and keep killing Gordon’s silver guys.
Sixteen years pass in the blink of an eye and those damn ninjas are still after that damn sword. While Gordon sticks around to defend it, Tony, now fully grown, is sent back to The South Village to try and save his friends and family from the ever-growing purple menace. It’s worse than that though. All this time, he has harboured a desperate love for Sally but it’s one that must remain unrequitied. She too has returned to the South Village from the Peking Opera, only to find her father dead and her mother penniless so, as a result, has been sold to local thug Bobby Jing (who’s in league with the purple ninjas)…
Obviously, there are two very separate stories happening here and they don’t always fit together, despite some tremendous effort on Ho and Lai’s part. There’s one wonderful scene, just before “Tony” leaves the ninja academy, where Gordon says “I believe you love music” and presents a gaohu (Chinese violin) to a masked silver ninja. The masked ninja begins playing sweet music for Gordon as it fades gracefully into footage of actual Tony (from Brother Of The Fields) playing a similar instrument back in the South Village. For one, the simple joy of a musical ninja (and Harrison’s blissful, super-serious expression as the melody plays) makes Ninja Showdown essential, but for another, it’s always nice when they make these kinds of sincere attempts to tie the two films together. I also enjoyed the overwrought scene in which child Tony shrieks “I WANT TO BE A NINJA!” at his crying mother. Goodness knows what they were originally saying in this tear-drenched, emotionally charged scene but I suspect it had nothing to do with ninjas.
If I’m honest, the two films are so at odds with one another and clash so astonishingly at times, it’s actively tasteless but there’s so much good stuff in both of them that the enjoyment level never really drops (even if a lot of the ninja scenes are just Harrison, in an array of Hawaiian shirts, shouting “PREPARE TO DIE!” at the camera, then duffing up some random purple ninja – but who couldn’t love this?). Brother Of The Fields was shot the same year that Chu Yen-Ping made the classic Fantasy Mission Force with Jackie Chan and Brigitte Lin and, while it’s not quite in the same league, the production values are strong and the film itself oddly engaging. Plus, it’s so grim and relentless at times that the crass IFD dubbing and cartwheeling purple ninjas are welcome light relief.
To give you an example of how darkly events play out (spoilers ahead), at one point Bobby rapes Sally while her mother dies of consumption in the next bed. Sally goes crazy and, when Bobby returns to rape her again, she slices her own face up with a knife. Tony finds her bleeding and crying and declares that he loves her no matter what. Tony’s mother – who’s been trying to keep them apart and push Sally towards Bobby – overhears this, realises her mistake and commits suicide by banging her head repeatedly on the stair banister right in front of them. But it’s okay because, moments after this chain of abject horror unfolds, we get Richard Harrison kneeling in a park, wearing a ridiculous outfit and screaming “NIIIIIIIIIIIINJAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” at the sky for no apparent reason. Yin and Yang, right?
The biggest surprise of all though? There is actually a cataclysmic climax as promised! Brother In The Field comes to a genuinely harrowing end with a machete massacre on pushbikes. It’s gory and tragic and poignant, so quite a relief then when, soaked in (cataclysmic) blood and tears, we cut to Gordon and the Purple Ninja Boss throwing ninja frisbees at each other for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it final scrap. The whole thing ends with a desultory backflip of victory as “THE END” flashes in violent red across the screen. Draining.
Sure, the ninja action here is a bit rushed and doesn’t feature much elaborate choreography or psychedelic mayhem but we do get some pure IFD gold nonetheless. The dialogue is magnificently strange (aided by the fact that they’ve found some squeaky-voiced nebbish to dub the usually macho Gordon). The part where he barks “Never forget the Ninja Commandment – GOOD MUST ALWAYS WIN OVER EVIL“ is great. I mean, for one, if that’s the COMMANDMENT, why would any ninja ever choose evil? But, for another, it’s a perfect example of why Godfrey Ho’s mind is so special. Who else could come up with something like that? I always feel, with these classic IFD films, that there’s a logic to them as if Ho knew exactly what the overarching story – his perpetual “ninja mission” – was meant to be. Like somehow they all fit together and I’m just yet to figure out how. Still, even if there’s a long way before I achieve total ninja coherence, the bizarre world that Ho created is such a fine, fine place to be. Ninja Showdown may be a bit deep for beginners but advanced ninjologists should get a good kick out of it.
One final thought. This film got me wondering just how many hours of footage Godfrey Ho shot of topless Richard Harrison swinging a sword around? Most of their collaborations have at least one or two scenes like this in them so there’s maybe, what, at least half an hour of it? More? I wonder what was going through Harrison’s head while he did it? I like to think, from his grave expression, that he was totally in the mind of Ninja Master Gordon, safeguarding the sanctity of the Ninja Sword Of Justice with the very fibre of his soul.
In 1981, Indonesia’s leading film studio, Rapi Films, released a martial arts fantasy adventure film called Jaka Sembung (released internationally as The Warrior). Based on the comic book of the same name (by Djair), the film shot its star Barry Prima to the top of the Indonesian box office and spawned not just a further three official sequels but numerous rip-offs in which Prima reprises the character in every way except the name. The first three Jaka Sembung movies were exported all over the world as The Warrior, The Warrior & The Blind Swordsman and The Warrior & The Ninja and, over time, grew something of an international cult following among VHS collectors won over by their OTT violence and weird backyard-budget charm…
The character of Jaka Sembung himself is a patriotic hero, a 19th century Indonesian rebel defending the People from invading Dutch colonists. Often, in these stories, the Dutch will call in help from local black wizards and other fiendish characters because they can’t defeat Jaka by themselves, but it never works because he is pretty much the ultimate warrior. With his ability to emit smouldering stares directly into the eyes (if not the soul) of the camera, his real life Tae Kwon Do black belt and impressive physique, it’s easy to see how Barry Prima got the role and why he proved so popular.
The Warrior & The Ninja is generally thought to be the third in his series (information’s a bit scant though – some people say it’s the second) and begins where whatever the last one was ended, in that Jaka is boasting about having defeated an evil murderer (spoiler – this happens in all the Warrior films so it really could be either). All seems peaceful for about two seconds until the local volcano explodes (quite a charming special effect, with the ropey volcano model evoking teenage science fairs of yore) and Jaka’s people have to run for cover while their village falls to pieces. It gets worse, as the neighbouring village is ruled by a particularly unpleasant tyrant in league with the Dutch and – as if that wasn’t enough – the eruption has caused a fiendish warrior to emerge from within the bowels of the volcano. This guy (an unfortunate actor sprayed head-to-toe with presumably toxic metallic paint) was apparently imprisoned years ago inside the volcano by Jaka’s master and, over time, his body has turned to molten iron (!).
Needless to say, this lava lout teams up with the Dutch and it looks like Jaka might finally be outnumbered and outgunned. But wait! What’s that you say? Isn’t this a ninja blog? Why, yes, it is… so as luck would have it, there’s a deadly woman (Rita Zahara – whom veterans of Indonesian trash will recognise from Jungle Virgin Force and many more) running around in a ninja suit and calling herself The Black Squirrel! She is a Robin Hood style character, stealing from the Dutch and giving it to local villagers so, of course, Jaka teams up with her to take on the bad guys. Whether the Black Squirrel is actually a ninja or not is up for debate. She dresses like one, more or less, but is only ever referred to onscreen as a bandit and never does anything magical or stealthy. It’s really only in the English version of the title that they’ve used the word “Ninja” (presumably to cash in on the boom which, by the time this was exported in 1985, was peaking).
There are some cool ideas in The Warrior & The Ninja but, if I’m honest, as Jaka Sembung films go, it’s bizarrely subdued. A lot of it is even – dare I say? – boring. The plot’s predictable and the over-earnest dialogue quite exhausting. Although there’s a wide array of characters, their arcs are dull: all roads lead to a duff-up. It might have more emotional resonance if I were Indonesian and patriotic, perhaps, but, as it stands, I found myself slogging through all the scenes in between the action. Considering this one is directed by H. Tjut, the mysterious genius behind Mystics In Bali (an essential and eerie Indonesian black magic classic) and the nutzoid Lady Terminator, I was expecting a higher calibre of craziness (although anyone who’s sat through his bargain basement Nightmare On Elm Street/Poltergeist mash-up, Satan’s Bed, will know that Tjut’s name is not always a sign of a guaranteed win).
There are a few great moments – like Jaka’s final shattering blow to the molten warrior, or the scene in which the Black Squirrel rips a rival fighter’s face clean off her skull – but it’s nowhere near as gory or as OTT as the first two films (Blind Swordsman, in particular, is a splatterfest). You’ve got a Pit and the Pendulum device that never gets used to its full potential, a smattering of random cannibalism, a melting wizard, a scene where a couple of old dudes fly and quite a few extended martial arts sequences but none of it’s remarkable or unique. It’s hard to say this of Indonesian cinema, where the energy is usually all it has going for it, but this one feels a bit lazy. Like they knew it would be a hit whatever they did, so just didn’t put much effort in.
If you’re interested in exploring the genre of Indonesian fantasy/action, The Devil’s Sword and The Warrior & The Blind Swordsman are better start points. If you’re a ninjologist in search of foreign thrills, it’s probably worth skipping this altogether. There’s the base appeal of Rita Zahara leaping about in a pseudo-ninja suit ripping faces off, sure, but this isn’t enough to propel our kind through 95 minutes of this largely turgid period adventure yarn. Sorry, Jaka.
The bad news is that there’s no blog post this week. The good news is that I’ve been busy ninjing in other places. This weekend you get a double dose of self-indulgence from me. First of all, I’m a special guest on Ed & Friends, a great new podcast in which comedian/actor/renaissance man Ed Fargher interviews me about ninja films and gets me to play some comedy games with him.
And, since I love my readers, here’s a picture of my Halloween outfit this year. Yes, I went as a Godfrey Ho ninja!
See you next week where normal service will resume!