“You may all wonder where Rodney and Janet are…”
Well, it’s certainly intriguing as opening lines go and you’ll be pleased to know that, once you’ve seen Ninja Commandments, you will wonder no more. Indeed, their grueling, tragic story – which packs some 30 years of suffering into 90 minutes – may well be etched in your memory forever. [WARNING: This post contains major Rodney/Janet spoilers!]
Ninja Commandments is one of IFD Films’ most bizarre cut and paste movies. The bulk of the footage is taken not from the usual fifth-rate kung-fu reject reels but from Ma! Don’t Die On My Back!, a tragic Taiwanese melodrama from 1981 that IFD owned the international rights to. If you’re interested in Taiwanese Black Movies – the obscure, short-lived genre that crossed exploitation films, “women’s pictures” and gritty social realism – Ninja Commandments provides an opportunity to see about 90% of a rare one, albeit with some dubious new English dubbing and a whole load of random ninja footage spliced in. Where the ninja footage came from is anyone’s guess. The director credit is Joseph Lai’s (with Godfrey Ho taking “story developer”) but this was presumably a group effort on behalf of IFD. It’s unlikely anyone knew at the time of shooting what story it would be later edited into…
The film opens with a meeting of the Silver Ninja Empire. An unnamed Ninja Master (Louis Roth) tells his best students the news about Rodney and Janet. They have broken one of the Ninja Commandments (“No sex before marriage” – seriously!) and have been cast out accordingly, stripped of their ninja powers and exiled to their birthplace; the Unicorn Village. The other students accept this grave news and, to soften the blow, the Master decides to send top student Gordon (Richard Harrison) on a mission to locate the Sword of Valour. [NOTE: Regular IFD viewers will be intrigued by the continuity here since Gordon is usually the Master. Even though Ninja Commandments was shot quite late in the cycle, if any continuity whatsoever can be found in this madness, this episode would definitely appear near the start of the eternal ninja mission…]
We cut to the Unicorn Village, where Rodney (Chun Hsiung Ko) and Janet (Elsa Yeung) are falling on hard times. Rodney has a severe gambling problem and Janet scrubs floors in a sleazy teahouse, even though she’s pregnant. The ubiquitous local scallywags who rule the village (watching these movies, you’d think every single village in China was ruled by scallywags) become enraged when Rodney outplays them at dice, so they beat him up, frame him for theft and get him sent to prison for decades (bit harsh). Meanwhile, poor Janet has to have the baby by herself and take on bruising menial labour in order to support them both. After an accident with a lamp brought on by exhaustion, Janet’s hut burns down. Amazingly, she gets her infant son out unscathed but her own face is disfigured horrifically in the blaze.
Flash-forward six years. She has told her son Danny that his real mother disappeared and she is just a maid who agreed to look after him because she’s so ashamed of the way she now looks. He rejects her love and resents her because his classmates (all of whom have ludicrous names like Fanny and Killroy) laugh at her hideous features. More years pass until Danny, now fully grown, decides he wants to track down his real parents… He leaves Janet for dead pretty much, and embarks on a weird little odyssey, eventually finding Rodney who, by now, is a broken man too; an ex-con living under a bridge and selling rice dumplings. By the time Danny realises that Janet is his real mother, it’s too late. Bereft and abandoned, she has fallen sick and is close to death. As thunder and lightning crashes in the sky, Danny runs across the city with her strapped to his back, screaming for her not to die. He desperately wants to reunite her with her lost love, Rodney, but it’s too late! When they finally reach his hovel. Rodney, wracked with guilt having learned of Janet’s miserable life, has hung himself.
Let’s just take a moment to digest that utterly horrible story, shall we?
Okay. So as a film, Ma! Don’t Die On My Back! (despite its spoilerific title) is pretty intense and actually a well-made example of Taiwanese Black Movies. It’s decently photographed and the cast is fantastic. I’m a big Elsa Yeung fan (as regular readers will know) and it’s good to see a striking, traditionally beautiful actress playing so violently against type here (and nailing the performance too). The film’s ending, although almost absurd in its melodrama, does pack something of an emotional punch. So, with all this quality raw material to work with, one can only imagine the conversations between Lai and Ho in the cutting room as they set to work redubbing the whole thing and adding in ninja footage. What possessed them? And how did they do it?
Well, to remind us throughout the story that Rodney and Janet are disgraced ninjas, random shots of Louis Roth in his ninja suit are spliced into even the most emotional scenes, as he runs through the titular Commandments. I’m not going to list all of them (“a ninja should never reveal his secrets” is one of them after all!) but they’re things like how a ninja should face difficulties, respect their families, be fearless, keep their promises, let go of external allegiances, never give up, etc… I guess it’s a testament to Ho that they do sort of fit with whatever’s happening in the story but it’s hard not to laugh whenever Roth’s bewildered face shows up to deliver another one at the most inopportune moments.
To make things worse for everyone, while Rodney and Janet are aging heavily over 30 or so years, the Master’s ageless apprentices Gordon and Stuart (Dave Wheeler) are fighting for control of the Silver Ninja Empire. Stuart murders the Master (not that being dead stops him from espousing Commandments) and Gordon, upon returning from his mission to retrieve the Sword of Valour, swears ninja vengeance. What this means is that he slices and chops and kicks his way through an army of disposable ninjas (most of whom aren’t even Silver, they’re Red – maybe Stuart was a secret spy from the Red Ninja Empire? Perhaps this is revealed in another film and another mission?). We get all the IFD signature moves – cartwheels, spinning poles, magic swords, disappearing tricks – and it’s, of course, wonderful. There’s even an awesome lady ninja here (“A girl!” gasps Gordon in horror after defeating her in combat).
The final fight happens after Gordon’s sufficiently trained up (the training, as ever, involves some light Tai Chi and shouting “NIIIIINJJAAAAAAA!” to the sky) and provides excellent light relief after Rodney and Janet’s devastating end. You even get to see Gordon use his magic ninja umbrella.
Of course, none of this has any right to work but – just like in Ninja Showdown – the formula of gritty melodrama + ninja nonsense = big win. It lags a little in the middle, as most IFD features do, but for the most part Ninja Commandments is a fine watch. It has some of the funniest character names in the canon (Killroy!), the source film is engaging and the ninja dialogue is some of the most beautifully earnest you’ll hear. I always love watching these films and wondering what was going through the heads of (professional! trained!) actors like Richard Harrison and Louis Roth as they had to spout imaginary “Ninja Commandments” or argue over who should head up the Silver Ninja Empire. There’s a wonderful moment where Harrison is just strolling merrily through the woods in his full ninja suit, not a care in the world. He isn’t even (knowingly) on his way to a fight or anything. We just have to accept that Gordon dresses like this all the time. And, frankly, why shouldn’t he?
I don’t want to get sentimental (maybe I’m just still feeling the pull of Rodney and Janet at my heartstrings) but the classic run of IFD films that includes Ninja Commandments is something truly special and a good part of why I write this blog is to try and get that across. Sure, we all laugh uproariously at the weirdness but the fact that it exists at all should be celebrated unironically and in earnest. I mean what kind of a mind could construct a world like this? A world where, the more you watch, the more it… almost makes sense? This stuff is far beyond loopy – no other filmmakers outside of IFD/Filmark (and their intentional parodies) ever depicted ninjas like this – and yet now in my head, having watched so many, this is how ninjas actually behave. Weird, huh? I think while there’s an obvious element of cynicism and ruthlessness to the way they made films, there is also a precious – at times, childlike – imagination working on overdrive, totally uninhibited by what people might think, producing a unique, distinctive (and, in certain circles, much loved) body of work and this is a rare, wondrous thing to see in all its glory.