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.