There are some weeks where I regret how deep I try to go into ninja pop culture. This is one such week. I bought The Little Of Shaolin Temple on VHS because of the stunning cover art (credited to “ART & ADVERTISING SERVICES LTD” of York – would love to know who the actual painter was). For a change, the image does represent actual scenes from the movie but it makes them all look super awesome whereas, on film, they’re more like something out of a weird and terrible school play. That tagline (“THE SHAOLIN MASTERS TAKE ON THEIR DEADLIEST ENEMY… THE NINJA”) is irresistible though, right? Any ninjologist seeking a ninjection of their weekly high would fall for it, surely? Not just me?
[WARNING: This review contains “spoilers”…]
There’s a 2006 Vengeance Video DVD of this film where they’ve retitled it Shaolin Youth Posse and the cover art there (a still of a bunch of little kids in monkish robes striking Shaolin stances) sums up a lot of what you’ll see in this film. The majority of the cast is under 12. To make it worse, they’re all dubbed into English by adults. Men and women putting on high-pitched voices. They all sound like they’re holding their noses too; weird nasal parodies of what kids might sound like in some kind of nightmare dimension where they’re forever trapped in a camp version of puberty. For the first few minutes this is almost funny but it soon burrows into your brain and becomes something you never want to hear again. Especially the “kid” with the stutter. I think I may have been conditioned to fly into a murderous rage if I hear one more falsetto “bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-Buddha bu-bu-bu-bless you”.
It’s unclear when this film was made and director Tang Chen-Dah doesn’t have many other credits. IMDB reckons it’s from 1972 but I’d be astonished if this were true. For one, it would make Little Hero an early example of ninjas in Taiwanese movies and I don’t think it’s quite that innovative. For another, Chen-Dah didn’t start regularly directing films until 1978 and I can’t believe he dropped this one then took a six year break. HKMDB gives Little Hero a release date of 1984 and this is more likely (where it would be riding the ninja wave for all it’s worth) although it may well have been shot earlier (if I had to guess I’d say maybe 1982). This would also make it Chen-Dah’s last film and I can believe he dropped this one then never worked again.
The “plot” here is incoherent and strange even by my standards (and I watch Godfrey Ho films on a regular basis). The first half an hour is just kids tooling around in Shaolin Temple. They’re trainee monks and, while they do display some decent acrobatic skills, the ridiculous dubbing and lack of any story or characters make it difficult to engage with. There’s an extended sequence where one kid steals some wine and shows the rest how to do drunken boxing, which is kind of funny if you find the idea of children getting blackout drunk amusing (who doesn’t, let’s be honest) but that’s all you get to pass the time.
The enjoyment is countered quickly by a subsequent scene in which all the kids are given flutes to blow in case of danger. Anyone who’s spent more than two seconds around a kid would know you should NEVER GIVE A KID A FLUTE. To make matters worse, there is plenty of danger lurking around the Temple so they get their taels’ worth out of those bloody flutes. An Evil Princess seeks to murder a young Prince who apparently is in hiding at Shaolin Temple. There are Reasons – some vague Ching Dynasty conspiracy nonsense that’s mentioned once – but these are soon forgotten. It’s all just an excuse for a bad character to send a load of different fighters in to Shaolin.
It goes weird because, for Reasons (never really clarified this time) all the adult monks have gone on some kind of mission and left the kids in charge of the Temple, right at this key moment. The drunk boxing kid is made into the makeshift abbot and has to become a man by training his many mini-monks to defend Shaolin against the ongoing swarm of attackers. I’m probably making this sound more coherent than it actually is. There’s no structure, little explanation of why anything happens and the dialogue – which, let’s not forget, is all delivered in creepy Mickey Mouse voices – is atrocious.
Still, this is Ninjas All The Way Down. We’re here for the ninjing, right? I’m sure patience is taught early on when learning ninjutsu and you’ll certainly need it here… The second act presents waves of increasingly weird fighters that aren’t ninjas – a group of (I think) drag queens (or maybe gypsy bandits?) duff up the little kids first. This has some psychotronic value, seeing dudes in bad make-up and dresses literally throwing kids off bridges and the likes, but isn’t exactly fun. A guy shows up who might be a vampire too (he hisses and bites the kids on the neck so he’s either a vampire or a mental pervert), and then the drag queens inadvertently stir the grave of (I think) the ghost of a Shaolin master. None of this is explained. He just leaps out the ground on very visible wires, growling and snarling, as the screen distorts, everyone screams and he flies around duffing them up. He turns into a skeleton shortly afterwards.
There’s a subplot involving a little girl who dresses like Tarzan, wields a whip and lives in the jungle. She helps the actual hidden Prince, who winds up lost and injured in a jungle for some reason, but this comes to nothing. Once he’s healed, he goes back to Shaolin and ditches her in a “comedy” scene where he’s, like, “BYE!” and she makes a “hmph! men!” face at the camera.
FINALLY, the Evil Princess – 1 hour and 2 minutes into the film – says it’s time to “release the Japanese Units” (ha). “Are you sure?” asks a henchman. “They are quite brutal and mysterious”. By this stage, I’m shouting “YES YES YES RELEASE THE JAPANESE UNITS!” at the screen and eventually, ninjas happen.
I guess it’s something I’ve not seen before – ninjas lurking around Shaolin Temple (doing actual stealth work) and flinging shuriken into the faces of unsuspecting little kids. People often say that the scene where a child takes a throwing star to the face in Revenge Of The Ninja is shocking but this happens about four or five times in The Little Hero Of Shaolin Temple (strangely not censored from the UK VHS – I guess even the BBFC couldn’t stay awake throughout this film). That’ll teach ’em to blow flutes.
I don’t usually like to give away the endings of films on the blog but this one has to be shared to be believed (and may save you from actually watching it). The kid abbot decides that he’s going to strap dynamite to himself and go blow up all the ninjas, kamikaze-style. The other kids all scream that they can’t lose their abbot so a bunch of them rip dynamite sticks from him, run at the ninjas and explode, one after the other. Yes, this film climaxes in a shower of exploding children and ninja dummies.
After this, the Evil Princess realises that violence is senseless so both she and the makeshift child abbot shower each other with Buddha’s blessings and make peace. Everyone agrees Buddha is best and “THE END” flashes on screen. Phew. I know you’re probably thinking this sounds like fun but it’s a serious chore to get through. If you absolutely insist on watching a heady mix of little kids and mindless violence, I’d recommend Hawk Jones (click for the trailer) as a far more enjoyable way of getting your kicks. The Little Hero Of Shaolin Temple is just awful, tasteless and bizarre. For the ninjologists, there is approximately seven minutes worth of ninja footage in this and they’re really not worth the other seventy-five.