I’ve been writing this blog a while now so I feel we know each other a little more. I feel like I can share things with you, confess stuff that I maybe wouldn’t be comfortable sharing elsewhere. One of these things is that I will literally buy ANYTHING that has either the words “Shaolin” or “Ninja” in the title. ANYTHING. I’m an easy mark and it’s an unfortunate affliction because, between the two, we’re probably looking at thousands of potential purchases. So it’s no surprise that if you combine the two, the film in question will leap straight to the top of the To Watch pile faster than a wuxia wizard on wires. This week I take a look at Robert Tai’s Shaolin Vs Ninja. [Spoiler Alert : it’s not a patch on Shaolin Challenges Ninja…]
Robert Tai is something of a martial arts renaissance man. As either an actor and/or choreographer he’s been involved with some of the greatest films of the genre. Although the extent of Tai’s input into productions like Five Deadly Venoms and The Chinatown Kid is hotly debated (his own story is that he more or less made the former single-handedly but he’s been accused of exaggerating), there’s no doubt that he worked for the Shaws’ studios during their peak period and picked up a few nifty tricks. His own films however – largely made after he left the Shaws in the early 80s – are far cruder affairs but have become the stuff of legend for bargain basement martial arts fans. The most infamous is Ninja : The Final Duel, a near-mythical title and a holy grail for ninjologists since the full version purports to be anything from NINE TO ELEVEN HOURS LONG and features naked ninjing and giant water spiders (luckily both of these things made it through into the released 90 minute cut but who knows what other pleasures lie in wait in those many lost reels?)… Shaolin Vs Ninja – disappointingly – is nowhere near as bonkers as Final Duel but does give you a similar insight into Tai’s modus operandi – give the viewer action! And lots of it! The more fighting, the better!
This is one of those movies where the title is pretty much the whole plot. Amusingly, on the back cover of the Hollywood East UK DVD release (retitled The Story Of Shaolin) they don’t bother to summarise it and settle instead for a history lesson on Shaolin Temple, full of mangled wisdom like “Behaviour in cahoots with rich merchants greatly exploited the souety” (sic). It’s actually very simple though. Set during the Ching Dynasty, the Japanese – shameless rascals that they always are in these movies – have decided they want to take over Shaolin Temple. Obviously, the monks don’t want this to happen. The Japanese hatch a number of ill-fated plans and eventually just send in a bunch of ninjas.
It’s a decent enough setup – one quasi-mystical highly disciplined art against another – but the almost total lack of plot, characters or structure does lessen the effect of the admittedly relentless action. For example, an hour or so in, the Japanese and the Chinese decide to settle their differences with a tournament and there are few things I love as much as a good tournament. Sadly, it’s just not set up for maximum enjoyment. Even though the fights are full of swish swordplay, fancy footwork and cool choreography, they just blur into one since we’re not really sure who half the characters are or what they’re capable of.
The best kind of tournaments are the ones where there’s a clear protagonist and they’re fighting bad guys that you are going to be fun to watch. There’s nothing like seeing a villain with an awesome weapon lurking around in the first half of the film and knowing he’s going to use it in the second, and that the hero has to find a clever way to beat it. With Shaolin Vs Ninja though, it’s just “here’s a dude duffing up a dude, here’s another dude duffing up another dude” without much expectation or variance, and this makes it harder to engage. Still, at least the costumes are quite natty and the sets reasonably lavish for such a low budget (it’s definitely a winner for you if you like giant gold Buddhas).
Most crucially, if it’s ninjing you’re looking for, this film’s fairly low on it. There are a couple of short but strong ninja fights and a little bit of the traditional scurrying over tiled rooftops to enjoy, but the ninjas are by no means the focal point of the story and they don’t get up to a lot of particularly interesting magic or ninja weirdness. The story centres more around the spiritual purity of the monks versus the rather cockeyed plans of the local Hitler-moustached baddies.
The dubbing is hysterically poor on the English language print of this too. I’m obviously no stranger to “interesting” dubs but this one’s new even to me. The guy doing most of the voices sounds like he’s either quite stoned, very sarcastic or both, which adds an extra layer of WTF to the proceedings. I’d say that, in summary, Shaolin Vs Ninja is an enjoyable showcase of Robert Tai’s formidable (and – yes, I’ll say it! – underrated) choreography skills but is perhaps best enjoyed not as one whole film but instead in bite-sized portions. Maybe play five minutes of it every morning when you wake up to psych yourself up for the day’s work. Have you had your morning cup of Tai yet?