AKA: Chinese Super Ninja 2
Director: Lee Tso Nam
Cast: Elsa Yeung Wai San, Chen Kuan Tai, Cho Kin, Kam Yin Fei, Kon Tak Mun, Peng Kang, Sit Hon, Sun Jung Chi, Robert Tai Chi Hsien, Yin Su Li, Lee Min-Bu, Ju Eun-ae
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
For many, 1983 will be the year that Taiwanese director Lee Tso Nam is associated with creating the kung fu masterpiece Shaolin Vs Lama, a slice of martial arts goodness that would remain a favourite of grindhouse cinemas and late night screenings for many years after. However in an era when it was rare for directors working within the genre to only make a single movie, Shaolin Vs Lama certainly wasn’t Tso Nam’s only output for the year. As well as getting behind the camera for the romantic drama Love Don’t Say Goodbye, the director also decided to get in on the ninja craze, belting out two movies that largely consisted of the same cast and crew. While A Life of Ninja cast Chen Kuan-Tai and Yasuaki Kurata in a superlative slice of ninja action, the more interesting of the two titles goes to Challenge of the Lady Ninja, which cast Elsa Yeung as a female ninja who likes her ninja garb to be lipstick red. None of this black nonsense!
Yeung also featured in A Life of Ninja, as does Kuan-Tai return for this more female-centric helping of ninja action. While Kuan-Tai’s role is more a supporting one here, he gets an introduction that any budding actor would die for. Decked out in a sharp white suite, he’s introduced set to the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars, a theme which immediately demands respect no matter what context it’s played in, copyright be damned. Played over Kuan-Tai’s natural onscreen charisma, the visuals and audio are a killer combination. As you’ve probably figured out, the Shaw Brothers star (who notably was still working for the studio at the time, he featured in Little Dragon Maiden made the same year) plays the bad guy, a Chinese who’s switched to working for the Japanese during World War II, and is responsible for murdering Yeung’s father.
The setting may be the Japan occupied China of the WWII era, however it should be stated that it appears to be some alternative reality version. 80’s fashion and cars are the order of the day, proving that period detail is clearly overrated, when you have a star that can twirl around and magically make herself stripped down to a skimpy pink bikini and bottoms. One of the many powers of the lady ninja, and one that I’m glad wasn’t inherited by Richard Harrison. As the leading lady, Yeung has a suitably alluring presence, and was a regular in many a Taiwan movie of the time, notably staring alongside the likes of fellow Taiwan natives Brigitte Lin and Sally Yeh in Pink Force Commando and Golden Queens Commandos from the year prior. In Challenge of the Lady Ninja, it’s explained that she’s a Chinese that’s trained with a group of Japanese ninja’s for the past 17 years, and after passing the final test, much to the chagrin of fellow student Peng Kang (also the movies fight choreographer), is let loose into the world.
In some territories Challenge of the Lady Ninja was re-titled as Chinese Super Ninjas 2, which in itself is a re-title of Chang Cheh’s Five Element Ninjas, also released the year prior. It’s easy to see why, with Yeung’s test seeing her adorned in a red ninja outfit, as she makes her way through a forest filled with both ninja opponents and traps, so the similarity most likely made it an obvious choice for a re-title at the time of its release. However another similarity comes in the form of Chen Kuan-Tai’s 4 bodyguards, which are never far from his side, and come decked out in a variety of black leather and disco-esque outfits. The bodyguards consist of a Taekwondo expert female, a strong man, a guy whose speciality is the use of a boomerang sword, and a Japanese sword expert, notably played by Robert Tai, who comes with a big blue lobster painted on top of his shaved head. At least I’m sure it was a lobster, thinking about it now, it could have been a poorly drawn scorpion.
Once the main story kicks in, most of the action in Challenge of the Lady Ninja involves at least one of the bodyguards. Yeung herself doesn’t go it alone though, recruiting both a kung-fu expert played by Korean Kim Yeon-ja (who, apart from this has just one other movie credited to her name, with 1978’s Death Duel of Mantis), and a whore from the local brothel, played by Pok Ying-Lan. Together they become a trio of deadly femme fatales – Yeung with her ninja skills, Yeon-ja with her kung-fu talents, and Ying-Lan with her, well, ability to seduce and lose her clothes at any given moment. It can’t be denied that there’s an exploitative element to Challenge of the Lady Ninja, with training sequences that involve our trio decked out in bikinis, frequently filmed almost entirely from crotch level.
Another scene has Yeung facing off against the Taekwondo expert in a boxing ring, which has Yeung rip her own clothes off to reveal her areas of modesty covered by black handprints! The reason why she rips her clothes off in the first place of course, is that the Taekwondo expert had a strategically placed vat of baby oil which is poured all over the ring. Think Jason Statham’s scene in the bus depot from The Transporter, just swap crude oil for baby oil, and a Cockney with a receding hairline for a sultry Taiwanese actress. In many ways though, the action is in line with the slightly wacky element that came with ninja movies being made during the early 80’s. Teleport skills shown by characters randomly disappearing and re-appearing in another part of the screen come as standard, as do projectiles that unleash colourful puffs of smoke upon impact, burrowing through the ground, and completely pointless acrobatics. All are present and accounted for in Challenge of the Lady Ninja.
Interestingly a large number of the productions supporting cast are made up on Koreans, a sign which is probably indicative that part of the movie was filmed there with a local crew. Indeed the movie even has its own entry on the Korean Movie Database, where it’s listed under the title Black Rose, and lists Bruce Lai (Chang Il-do) as a cast member. Shin Wi-gyun is listed as a co-director from this source, and most likely there’s a separate Korean cut of the movie featuring local actors (Don Wong Tao once recalled in an interview how, on one of his movies being filmed in Korea, upon finishing the Korean crew then brought in their own actors to continue filming their own version). Wi-gyun was one of those local go-to directors for Chinese productions filming in Korea, which was common practice in the 80’s due to the reduced filming costs, with the only condition from Korea usually being to include some local crew and performers. Notably Wi-gyun is also listed as the co-director for the likes of The Postman Strikes Back and John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears.
Challenge of the Lady Ninja ultimately surprises with a plot twist I didn’t see coming (however those of a superior intellect might, which is a significant number), and culminates, like any ninja movie should, with a ninja versus ninja battle. It’s unfortunate that the final battle is somewhat of an anticlimax due to being relatively short, however it does contain some unique ideas, not least that the final part of the fight takes place completely underground. It appears that when you see those ninjas burrowing through the ground, they’re not just going from A to B, in some cases they’ve actually found the time to dig out a whole little area just big enough for a pair of ninjas to go at each other in. While it’s nice to see a variation on the countless sword clanging and colourful puffs of smoke that most ninja movies from Taiwan and Hong Kong end in, the execution sadly falls a little flat, leading the final blow to be more of a “hmmmm”, than a “wow!” moment.
While Tso Nam would continue directing and is still active today, for the other familiar names in Challenge of the Lady Ninja, the production came at the tail end of their career. Yeung would make just a handful more movies in the following years, including This Love of Mine in 1986, directed by her husband Chang Yi. Robert Tai would also make the move away from being in front of the camera, and focus more on action directing, going on to make one of his last screen appearances a couple of years later in the legendary Ninja: The Final Duel. While there’s a distinct feeling that Challenge of the Lady Ninja was made past the peak of most of its performers abilities, it succeeds at never being boring, and the guarantee of some action, be it covered in baby oil or delivered via the thrust of a blade, is never far away. For that, it certainly warrants a watch.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10