AKA: Super Ninjas
Director: Chang Cheh
Producer: Mona Fong
Cast: Ricky Cheng, Chan Wai Man, Chen Pei Hsi, Lo Meng, Wong Wai Tong, Lung Tien Hsiang, Wong Lik, Kwan Feng, Chui Tai Ping, Chu Ko, Chan Hung, Stephen Chan, Cheung You Sing, Chiu Gwok, Choi Kwok Keung, Chow Kin Ping, Chow Siu Loi, Ho Wing Cheung, Bruce Lai
Running Time: 104 min.
This isn’t a review, it’s a love letter.
I first saw this movie on a local channel when I was a kid. It blew my mind and I knew I was witnessing something special. I saw it again years and years later; in fact, I know exactly when it was: Summer of 1992. It was on the USA Network on a Saturday afternoon, and I remember my Mom came into the living room, right at the part when Shao Tien-Hao’s about to take care of a little “Nuisance,” and my Mom said, “What in the hell are you watching?” She said it more in horror than annoyance, because it’s a pretty shocking scene: something you won’t see the normal Hollywood hero do, that’s for sure.
The movie already had great importance to me, but it rocketed into the mythic stratosphere just a few months later, when I entered college and met a guy who loved the movie as much as I did. But the important fact was that he had a copy of the original US video release, which was, cue fanfare, UNCUT. In fact this movie was partly responsible for the friendship between me and this guy, Ken, a friendship which continues to this day. So that’s just one of the many reasons I’m such an admirer of this cinematic tour de force of violence, heroic sacrifice, and “forced prostitution.”
I’ll usually complain if a movie has too much action and too little story, and it’s true that Five Element Ninja (or as I’ll probably always call it, Super Ninjas) is mostly action. But when it’s done this well, when the movie’s this cool, who really cares? If you want crackerjack kung-fu choreography, bizarre yet deadly weaponry, cool characters in cool costumes, sexy ninja chicks in fishnet stockings, and warriors tripping over their own intestines, then boy do I have the movie for you.
Cheng Tien-Chi stars as Shao Tien-Hao, a cocky young kung-fu whiz kid. We really don’t get to meet him for a while, though; instead, the opening half of the movie concerns a sparring match between Shao’s school and a rival school. Things don’t go so well for the rival school; even their guest fighter, a samurai, is defeated. The samurai calls in his ninja pals right before slicing open his own stomach. Eventually the ninjas issue a challenge to Shao’s school. Their teacher, who’s lost his kung-fu due to a poisoned dart the samurai threw at him right before committing suicide, sends off several of his best students, but keeps Shao and Chi Shang (portrayed by Venom Lo Meng) by his side.
Shao’s schoolmates are slaughtered by the ninjas. There’s no other word for it. Representing each of the five elements, there’s the water ninjas, who come out of the water, the fire ninjas, who use fire and smoke tactics, the earth ninjas, who erupt out of the ground, the gold ninjas, who blind their opponents with their golden shields, and the wood ninjas, who hide inside of trees. During this long battle sequence the movie offers many grisly moments, with the aforementioned intestine-tripping, multiple hackings and dismemberings, and even (in the uncut version) a quick glimpse of a female fire ninja’s breasts.
The ninja leader then sends in female ninja Senshi to gather information on Shao’s school. Cozying up with the gullible Chi Shang, she successfully gathers enough details for the ninjas to mount a nighttime assault. This leads to the destruction of the school, the murder of the teacher and Chi Shang, and the capture of Shao. He’s able to escape, due to a lesson he once received from an elderly Chinese ninja master. Shao finds this old man and learns the ninja arts. Eventually he’s able to issue his own challenge to the ninjas, he and his three new brothers meeting each group and kicking ass. Along the way he settles his score with Senshi (“I was right. WAS I right?”), wastes tons of ninjas, and gains his vengeance.
The fighting in this movie is great across the board. It’s one of the few kung-fu movies you could watch over and over, and never get bored. The Venoms movies can be seen as the peak of the Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, but sometimes their choreography was a bit too “hey, look at me!” sort of stuff. Five Element Ninja has acrobatic leaps and kicks and punches, just like the Venoms, but it’s all certainly more hard-hitting. Weapons fighting takes predominance over kung-fu, but this isn’t your typical swordplay movie at all. The choreography is flawless and shows off the obvious skill of the performers.
I have a feeling that if the Shaw Brothers had continued making films, the actors in this movie would have gone on to become Chang Cheh’s “New Venoms.” Most of them had already appeared in the final Venoms movie, House of Traps, but here they get a chance to shine on their own. In particular I’ve always liked lead actor Cheng Tien-Chi, who seems to me like the “Voltron Venom.” If all the other Venoms combined, he would be the result: he’s got the lead-actor qualities of Kuo Choi, the on-screen charisma of Lo Meng, the comedic talents of Chiang Sheng, the weapons mastery of Lu Feng, and the kicking ability of Sun Chien. I wish he’d made more movies, but he faded along with the Shaw Brothers moviemaking empire. A footnote to the Cheng Tien-Chi story is that he was good friends with Venom Chiang Sheng; it was Cheng Tien-Chi who discovered Chiang’s body, dead from a heart attack, in 1991.
The other actors who stand out for me are the mustached Tien Hsiang-Lung as Brother Li, who makes a lone stand against the fire ninjas, the evil ninja leader Chin Tien-Chun, played by Chan Wai-Man (who’d been appearing in Shaws movies for at least a decade), and the three brothers who join Shao’s cause. Then of course there’s Lo Meng, who’d quit the Venoms crew years before, but stayed with the Shaws until the very end. He’s always been one of my favorites. According to his biography on the new Celestial DVD release of Five Venoms, Lo’s a TV star in Hong Kong these days, and lately he’s been attempting to refashion his image as a comedic performer!
The pacing of the narrative is perfect. You might think this is just a schlocky fight-fest, but there’s emotional content here. In fact, the ending gets me every time. Seeing the punishment the ninja leader puts his three new brothers through, Shao realizes what he must do. His final mad dash toward the leader, as various clips from the film flash before his eyes, is to me one of the many highlights of the movie.
This film is one of Chang Cheh’s best, even if the sets are a bit cheap-looking (at one point you can see paint bubbles in the sky), and the costumes at times are too outrageous. (I don’t know too many ninjas who would wear bright gold costumes, and believe you me, I know lots of ninjas.) In some ways, Five Element Ninja can be seen as an ultraviolent combination of Chang’s earlier, more artsy (but bloody) movies and his later kung-fu fests. It’s unfortunate that this was his last movie to make any impact, but at the same time, it’s fitting.
I could go on and on, make this review epic length, but I’m trying to hold myself back. Hopefully I’ve managed to convey my enthusiasm. You know how sometimes you’ll be watching a movie, and you’ll wonder, “wouldn’t it be cool if?” Like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if ninjas erupted out of the ground?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if that dude killed himself with an axe?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if they fucking ripped the main villain in half?” Well, Five Element Ninja meets and exceeds your every “wouldn’t it be cool if” wish.
As a final word, I advise all to out the Panmedia-released, uncut DVD of this film, which is generally listed as “Chinese Super Ninjas uncut.” It’s just a bootleg dub of a video, much like the NS DVD version you can find in stores is a bootleg dub of a video, but whereas the NS release is sourced from an edited version, the Panmedia disc is truly uncut, as it’s taken from the original US video release. The same version my pal Ken showed me, all those years ago. And then when Celestial finally gets with it and releases the remastered version on DVD, buy that one, too. You’ll want both. I’m dreaming of the day when Celestial releases this movie, but dreading it, too. Because I’m so familiar with the English dub (I could quote lines from it all day and not get bored), it’s going to be hard getting used to everyone speaking in Mandarin. But, just to see this movie in widescreen, I can deal with that, no problem.
If I had to make a list of my top five favorite Shaw Brothers movies, Five Element Ninja would rank in the number one position. That’s about the highest praise I can give it. I’m patiently awaiting the Celestial release. (By “patiently,” I mean I’m kicking puppies every chance I get.)
Okay, I’ll limit myself to just one more of my favorite lines in the English dub: “Look at this one! His GUTS are all over!”
Joe909’s Rating: 10/10
By Alvin George
“Five Element Ninjas” is a blood-soaked and highly entertaining martial-arts flick from the early ’80s. The music score is more appropriate to a production of a decade earlier and the English dubbing leaves much to be desired, but the movie is still rewarding. It is proof positive that you don’t need Sho Kosugi, Tadashi Yamashita, or Michael Dudikoff to make a far-out ninja movie. Um, did Japanese gals really wear fishnet-type outfits back in day? Where’s the excrement in that one scene where that one Chinese fighter has intestinal stuff hanging out? OK, so the movie might be somewhat worthy of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment, but “Five Element Ninjas” is consistently entertaining, with expert fight choreography. I personally would’ve preferred more notable actors to appear in the movie, but what the hey! The Tokyo Shock DVD I rented features a print that was apparently remastered–and a wonderful job at that.
Alvin George’s Rating: 8.5/10
I was hesitant to even give Chinese Super Ninja a chance. I’m not a big fan of martial arts films. In fact, I’m pretty ignorant of the genre entirely as evidenced by my favorites: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. House of Flying Daggers. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. (See?) I also didn’t grow up on any of the Shaw Brothers films (no Kung Fu Theater on cable in England and rural Michigan), so I knew I wasn’t going to give Super Ninja a great rating solely because I remembered it fondly from my youth. I remember watching Betamax copies of all of Bruce Lee’s films, but my experience with kung fu-heavy action films was pretty much limited to that and whatever Hollywood crapped out, like Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon and Bloodsport.
To my surprise, however, Chinese Super Ninja kicks ass. The fact that it has dozens of ninjas with a variety of ninja weapons and performing all sorts of ninja moves is almost reason enough to give this movie a perfect score. But it also has a sexy, fishnet-stocking clad hot female ninja. It has cool color-themed ninjas representing the elements. (Think the symbolic use of color of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Flying Daggers, but add bad dubbing and more gore and you’ve got “element ninjas.”) The plot is simple, but the defend-the-fort story-line is one of those action movie staples that always seems to work (see also Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, Rio Bravo, etc.). The combat is well-choreographed and plenty bloody (a guy steps on his own…was that a nearly-severed, dangling thigh muscle? An intestine?). Even the acting isn’t as bad as you’d imagine it might be in one of these low-budget, filmed-entirely-in-a-warehouse-with-painted-backdrops types of films (even the shockingly fake “water ninja” scene–which looks like it was filmed in someone’s above-ground swimming pool–is highly entertaining).
The bad? I’ve never liked dubbed movies. I know it’s a staple of the genre (like quick zooms to close-ups and absurd sound effects), but because I am hearing impaired, it’s almost necessary that I can read the dialogue in subtitles. Because the dubbing is usually out of sync with the actor’s lips and the audio is generally pretty poor, I miss most of the dialogue, and ultimately most of the story. Did this detract from my enjoyment of the film? Yes, a little, but it’s obviously the nature of the low-budget kung fu film beast, so I’m able to overlook this annoyance and appreciate Chinese Super Ninja for what it is: a fun and colorful action flick filled with gore, great fight scenes and ninjas. Lots and lots of ninjas.
Alexander’s Rating: 9/10
Chang Cheh’s “Super Ninjas” is a fastpaced and vicious kung-fu flick full of amazing fights, blood, guts, and brilliant death scenes. When you think about the movie after having watched it, you smile immensely. The plot is, of course, simple: Japanese ninjas versus Chinese warriors. And while most of these types of movies’ story telling methods are painfully bad, this one cannot be put in that list. It is, of course, not brilliant, but we aren’t ducking under our seats in horror. The stupid dialogue and goofy dubbing make for some great entertainment. It gets the job done with what the director, actors, and cheesy set pieces can do. Fine. Now, let’s not dwell on the story more than it deserves…
As mentioned before, “Super Ninjas” is loaded with incredible fight sequences. They are absolutely a sight to behold! The film successfully makes itself look as if an anime show or a videogame were brought into live-action. Our heroes battle against an array of ninjas, all based off the five elements: gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. The ninjas are brilliantly realized: the use of colors, weaponry, and techniques are all well done. The movie stays true to these elements by keeping the ninjas in different locations and by adapting them to their environments in some pretty neat and cool methods. I especially enjoyed how the ninjas clad in black move through the night without making a sound. The fighting is propelled at a blazing speed, and the editing can be razor sharp at times. Not only is there outstanding choreography and actors with great martial arts skills, but there is also some crazy cool death scenes, all drenched in fake blood.
I’ve never laughed as much as I did when several ninjas met their gruesome and “creative” deaths (The best one has got to be the final wood element ninja in the ending). A good thing too is that these fights last for a long periods of time, providing non-stop enjoyment as the carnage ensues. I recommend this to anyone looking for a good time or just a great kung-fu movie. There’s plenty adrenaline, excitement and cheesiness to keep you coming back for more of this violent and bloody actioner. With a heavy emphasis on fighting and creativity, “Super Ninjas” is an insane, campy-as-hell, must-see classic!
Milkcan’s Rating: 10/10
Even if you hate kung fu movies, this you need to see. I’d say it’s better than sex, but what do I know? I haven’t even had any yet. Unless vacuum cleaners and right hands count as sexual partners. Then, I’m a regular Ron Jeremy, albeit a skinnier and less hairy one. Getting on with it, this movie rocks. It’s the kind of movie that brings back all of the excitement that you got from watching movies when you were a little kid. You know, when you would finish watching a movie and then run over to your best friend’s house, describing the whole movie, in that nonsensical, breathless, endless sort of way.
Case in point: When I got home from seeing Terminator 2. I remember walking next door to Justin”s apartment at 2:00 P.M., and leaving at 6:00 P.M., talking nonstop the entire time. “So then, uh, you know, like, the guy with the morphing thing….no, no, not the Terminator…yeah, that scary guy, he turned into the mom, and, oh yeah, and,ummm, later, yeah, he chased that crazy lady in the car and the Terminator was in the car and the kid was in the car and earlier on the kid, ahhh dude, it was so cool, get out your bike , I’ll show you what he did….” I could go on for hours… describing the plot, ruining the best moments, acting out the characters, making a mess of my buddy’s room, eating all of his food, and then going home to whine and cry to see it again.
Yep, Chinese Super Ninjas is that kind of movie. Immediately after watching, I was, like, “Duuuddde!”, Keanu Reeves, Bill and Ted-era style. I found myself breathlessly hyping it up to my friends. “And then the dude, not that dude, the good dude, trips on his own guts, man. Ahhh, man, it was fuggin’ crazy! And later on, this one dude’s back is fried cause he gets stuck to a fuggin door…seriously….yeah you can watch it at my place, as long as you don’t smoke any weed. Why? Why? Remember last time, you ate all my food! Fine, then. Fuck you, too! I’m just gonna watch it myself dude.”
Anyways, I’ll do the obligatory praising. Chang Cheh is a mad genius. He’s like a whacked out kung fu version of John Woo, only crazier. He has guys tripping on intestines, ninjas who swim under water and burrow under the ground, more fake blood than , uh, a fake blood factory(hey, I’m tired), and all kinds of cool stuff. The sets look fake as hell, but it just feels right for a surreal movie like this.
Blood, gore, bad sets…tons of movies have those things, but none of them have the insane energy and drive of this one. If you see one kung fu movie this year, make it this one.
In conclusion, there was this one dude, and um, oh no, my bad, it was the other guy, and he was the bad guy, and he totally got pulled in two, and it was like WAHHHH!, you know, and then this one chick, he didn’t even bang her..no, not the dude you’re thinkin’ of…the one dude! Yeah, him…
Woody’s Rating: 10/10