AKA: Rocky’s Love Affairs, Hwa-ya
Director: Choi Young-chul
Cast: Chan Wai-Man, Casanova Wong, Andy Chworowsky, Chae Eun-hui, Eagle Han Ying, Park Yun-geun, John Ladalski, Mabel Kwong Mei-Bo, David Lo Dai-Wai, Wai Ka-Man, Luk Ying-Hong
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Let’s just get it out of the way upfront – City Ninja is such a muddled production, the very prospect of reviewing it and providing some kind of background of how it came to be is an intimidating one. Almost every source available presents small variances on the backstory, however having now watched it, the one that seems to make the most sense goes like this – in 1983 director Choi Young-chul make a Korean action movie by the name of Hwa-ya, that featured Casanova Wong and imported Hong Kong star Chan Wai-Man. In this version, Wai-Man is the bad guy and ultimately dies in the finale.
This is where it gets confusing. A couple of years later, a source that was most likely Godfrey Ho decided to re-jig it, notably not for an overseas audience as he did with so many Korean productions, but for a local HK audience. The reason I say Godfrey Ho is that, despite his name not being directly mentioned on the likes of either the Hong Kong or Korean Movie Database, the editing style has his name all over it, and although not a significant detail in the movie itself, the inclusion of gweilo actor Andy Chworowsky. Chwowosky featured in 3 movies in 1985, and the only one that doesn’t implicitly state Ho’s name as the director is this one. I’d assumed the co-director listed on hkmdb, one Yeung Chun-Bong, must for sure be one of Ho’s many aliases, however Chun-Bong does have one other movie to his name as a director called Searching for Love, which was released in 1986. So, is he the real deal or not? I have a feeling we’ll never know.
There is of course, one other major factor that indicate the involvement of Godfrey Ho, and that comes in the form of ninjas. City Ninja, despite not quite being geographically accurate, does at least half deliver on its promise in the form of ninjas aplenty. One source states that Casanova Wong filmed additional scenes once Hwa-ya was picked up for HK distribution, and there certainly seems to be some truth in this. There are moments when he appears bulkier than in his initial scenes, in which he cuts a slimmer figure, but again how much truth there is in this we’ll likely never know. Whatever the case, Hwa-ya was eventually re-jigged and released in Hong Kong under the new title of Rocky’s Love Affairs in 1985, and even made a profit, leading it to be dubbed into English and released to western audiences either under the alias of City Ninja or Ninja Holocaust.
All of the above elements of course usually add up to a horrendous unwatchable mess, but not the case for City Ninja (this is the title I watched it under, hence the review referring to this version), which somehow manages to be 90 minutes of pure entertainment from start to finish. A pre-credits sequence takes place in Hong Kong during World War II, in which a gweilo soldier is hunted down by ninjas that want to get their hands on a necklace in his possession. It turns out the necklace has a Swiss bank account access code carved into it, so those pesky Japanese want to get rich. Skip forward to modern day Hong Kong, and it’s revealed that half of the necklace is in HK, with the other half in Korea. Both Casanova Wong and Chan Wai Man, who play kickboxers, end up hired by gangsters in each of their countries to find the other half of the necklace. Oh, and there’s ninjas.
The logic of the plot falls apart the moment you give it more than 2 seconds thought, so the recommendation is not to. Instead, sit back and enjoy Casanova Wong and Chan Wai Man kicking ass and having sex for 90 minutes. Indeed, it seems City Ninja at least in part wants to be a saucy softcore romp, to the point that when it ended, I had a hard time remembering if either of them did anything apart from interchange between fight scenes and sex scenes for most of the duration. The excuse for all this is as illogical as everything else. Wai Man has a fiancé, but his sexually frustrated manager wants to use him to fulfil her desires, which he never objects to. At its most bizarre, the pair end up doing it against one of the padded corners of a boxing ring, to which they then smoothly transition to a rowing machine. Such imagination, and a whole 6 years before Sex and Zen!
Casanova Wong on the other hand ends up falling for the moll that was hired by the gangster he’s working for to basically seduce and make sure he agrees to do the job. Naturally, to complicate things, she also falls for him as well. Hilariously, these parallel plot lines unfolding in Hong Kong and Korea respectively, at one point result in both Wong and Wai Man being involved in sex scenes within 5 minutes of each other (note: I said ‘of each other’, not ‘with each other’). With that being said, the main actresses tend to keep their modesty through strategically placed limbs or camera angles, with only an overzealous Caucasian lady at a bar willing to expose everything, which she does via ripping all her clothes off once a victorious Chai Man enters with his entourage. Bizarre.
But let’s face it, nobody is checking into a title like City Ninja to see how good Wong and Wai Man are in bed (at least I assume they’re not), we’re here for the action, and in that regard, it delivers in spades. Despite the presence of Wai Man, the majority of the action beats fall to Casanova Wong, and to see him letting loose in that rare contemporary setting is a joy to behold. The audience doesn’t have to wait long to see him in action, when at just over 10 minutes he’s facing off against a man mountain of a Thai kickboxer in the ring, and from then opportunities for him to unleash come thick and fast. A standout is his assault on a pool bar, that puts Steven Seagal’s rampage in Out for Justice to shame, as he takes out a room full of thugs with lightning fast kicks, all the while having to avoid pool balls being shot at him by a kabuki makeup wearing Japanese villain. To top it off, the scene ends with him in a mud wrestling ring, what more could you ask for?
He also gets a rooftop fight scene against an imposing African American sniper, which predates the Donnie Yen versus Michael Woods scene in In the Line of Duty 4 by 4 (possibly 6) years, and I’d daresay with the way the fight concludes was possibly an influence on it. One point that Yen certainly has over Wong though, is that he didn’t perform the fight with the seam of his pants between the legs completely ripped, exposing bright red underwear underneath. Surprisingly it’s not the only fight scene involving underwear exposure, as when Wong and his girl (played by Chae Eun-hui) are confronted by numerous thugs, the pair engage in some nicely choreographed tandem fighting. Wong manipulates Eun-hui’s body to kick the living daylights out of the thugs, resulting in some gratuitous underwear flashing on Eun-hui’s part. While all of this may seem out of place in a kung fu flick, it’s important to remember how popular erotic cinema became in Korea during the 80’s, once the heavy censorship of the earlier decade has been removed.
The final 25 minutes of City Ninja are essentially one long action sequence, which have the wonderfully welcome surprise of Eagle Han Ying showing up as the main villain. Well, kind of main villain. Thanks again to the editing, Wai Man goes from good guy to bad guy with wafer thin explanation. When he finally boards a plane to Korea, he and Wong meet for the first time at the 1 hour mark, however with Wong’s girlfriend already kidnapped, the Korean is more preoccupied with getting her back (especially since she’s being tortured via being spun around on a big red platform, the horror!) than any necklace nonsense. What follows is Wong going on a 10 minute rampage against a small army of ninjas in a cemetery, before it segues into a two-on-one as he takes on both an empty handed Eagle Han Ying and katana wielding Park Yun-geun, which makes for a ferociously satisfying fight in a warehouse. Han Ying in particular looks as fast and sharp as he ever has here.
Then, like that, we have a randomly inserted sex scene with the gangster who hired Wai Man and his moll. In retrospect though, this scene appears to have been inserted in order to bridge the scene of Wong’s fight against Han Ying and Yun-geun, and the ultimate final fight against Wai Man, so in that regard, it’s forgivable. Why? Simply because watching Wong and Wai Man go at each other is worth the price of admission alone, as they launch a barrage of kicks against the other with an almost animal like ferocity. I wasn’t entirely convinced that they didn’t in fact want to kill each other. It’s a fantastically intense fight, from two of the most legitimate fighters to ever grace the screen, and it doesn’t disappoint. Except for, that is, one of the most infuriating freeze frame finishes to a fight I’ve ever seen. Actually I’m sure the fight was over, however the editing cuts it off at the worst place possible, which almost made me throw the remote at the screen. Again, this most likely is connected to the new ending the HK version was given, which doesn’t involve Wai Man dying.
Despite the above qualm, the sheer quality of the action (both in and out of the bedroom) makes it easy to recommend. Both Casanova Wong and Chan Wai Man look legitimately dangerous when they’re called on to fight, and that’s no easy feat when you’re in a kung fu movie and people can get hurt. The bizarreness of everything in-between only adds to its incoherent charm, from the Japanese villain balancing upside down with one hand on a pool table, while preparing to take a shot with the other, to the elaborate acrobatic displays the ninjas perform just to create a human seat for their master. City Ninja may have a generic title, but trust me when I say it’s not a term you could apply to any other aspect of it.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10