SUPER NINJA (1982)
The Shaw Brothers and Chang Cheh returned in 1982 with another violent martial arts epic, WU DUN REN SHU (literally FIVE ELEMENT NINJA). When WU DUN REN SHU was released internationally, the film became CHINESE SUPER NINJAS. All the behind-the-camera talents from the previous Venoms films were back for another go round, including scriptwriter I. Kuang and producer Mona Fong. However, the actors themselves who played the Venoms had moved on. Only Lo Meng was still on board, and Lu Feng had only a brief cameo. Instead, Chang Cheh brought all new talents into the fold, like Chen Tin Yee, Lung Tien Sang, and Wang Lieh. CHINESE SUPER NINJAS has never been available in the home video market, and was even difficult to find in collector circles (or even the bootleg sector). NS Video, a branch of Ground Zero Entertainment, finally released this long-sought-after title on DVD in late 2000.
CHINESE SUPER NINJAS opens with this narration: "The varied costumes and weapons in this film are based on Japanese ancient catalogs and collections, such as the Samurai manual and outlines of southern weapons. As well as many other famous works of contemporary Japanese writers." This narration doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it sets the tone for the story to come. Two schools of martial arts, one led by the evil Mr. Kang (Chen Hei Psi); the other led by a respected Kung Fu master, Mr. Li, clash for superiority. After Mr. Li’s good students (appropriately garbed in fancy white training uniforms) soundly make a mockery of Mr. Kang’s bad students, Mr. Kang summons forth his Japanese Ninja fighter to trash his rival school. But young Shou Tin How (Chen Tin Yee) proves he is worthy of taking out Mr. Kang’s Ninja. After a protracted battle, Shou Tin How defeats the Ninja. The good students remind the defeated Ninja of his vow, "Loss of a fight means loss of one’s life to a Samurai". So the Ninja uses his sword to slowly disembowel himself. But with his dying breath, the Ninja informs Shou Tin How and the other students that they all shall die at the hands of his master Ninja, who is on his way to China from Japan.
The Ninja leader, Chinua Munda (Chan Wei Man), arrives from Japan along with his Five Element Ninjas and joins the mercenary cause of Mr. Kang. Munda immediately issues a challenge to Mr. Li’s school. The students want to confront the Ninja band, but their master opposes the idea of an all out confrontation. One of Munda’s Ninjas succeeds in poisoning the old master, and as a result he loses his martial arts ability for three months. This prompts his students, including Shou Tin How and She Shang (Lo Meng), to hide him inside a secret chamber within their school. Neither Mr. Kang’s spies nor the Five Element Ninjas know where Mr. Li is hiding. In an attempt to lure Mr. Li out of hiding, Munda deploys his Five Elements Ninjas against Mr. Li’s students. The Five Element Ninjas each have a skill based on the five elements (earth, fire, water, wood, and gold), and promptly use deception to make short work of the good students. With the population of the school dwindled down significantly, Munda and Mr. Kang formulate a plan to penetrate the foundation of the school itself, and kill Mr. Li.
She Shang saves a street urchin Sungi (Yu Tai Ping) from being sold into prostitution by her lecherous uncle. She is adopted by the school, and is employed as a hard-working domestic. Two people keep their eyes on her, She Shang (because he is attracted to her) and Shou Tin How (because he is suspicious of her). Those suspicions are well founded, however, because Sungi is really a deadly female Ninja. But the students unknowingly allow her to accompany them to the inner sanctum of their teacher. She rats them out to her Ninja friends who return to the school in full force, and a huge bloody battle for survival ensues. All the students are killed, including She Shang and Mr. Li. Only Shou Tin How survives the massacre, because Sungi requested he be spared. He quickly escapes their clutches, because he is the only student who has trained using Ninja techniques. Shou Tin How heads deep into the woodlands to return to the elder Chinese Ninja master who taught him the ways of the Ninja. When he again meets up with his wise old Chinese Ninja master, he not only takes Shou Tin How back under his wing, he also introduces him to three other Chinese Ninjas who hate the Five Element Ninjas. Now, the playing field is equal for the inevitable confrontation between the Five Element Ninjas and the Chinese Super Ninjas!
CHINESE SUPER NINJAS features the talents of the incredible Lo Meng, who played Golden Arm in KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM and Toad from FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. Meng is the only holdover from the original Venoms, and like those previous films, still he is not the main hero. Chang Cheh must have something against Lo Meng, because clearly he is most gifted fighter out of all the Venom actors, yet he is either cast as the villain (as in KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARMS) or he is a heroic character who is sacrificed and killed off early (as in FIVE DEADLY VENOMS). But in CHINESE SUPER NINJAS, I like the way that Chang Cheh leads the audience to believe that Lo Meng’s character is the main protagonist and the best fighter in the film. This makes it twice as shocking when his character is killed off at the half way point. The only other main plot point that is questionable is when Chen Tin Yee’s character returns for to his former master for Ninja training. At this point, nothing is said about the character’s past history, so when he finally returns to the Chinese Ninja master, it makes me wonder whether they are just making this stuff up as they go along. Also, the Chinese Ninja master just conveniently has three willing and fully trained students ready to join the fray.
One of the highlights of CHINESE SUPER NINJA’s is Chang Cheh’s masterful martial arts direction. He complements the complicated maneuvering of his martial artists with his fluid scene compositions and juxtaposed editing, something that no other genre directors have been able to match. Cheh photographs the action in such a way that the viewer is not aware that a cut has been made. Then he uses wild zooms and horizontal framing to further draw in the audience. Cheh also gets the most of the interior sets used for filming and includes some appropriate mood lighting. The new faces that Cheh recruited to take the place of the departed Venom actors (sans Meng Lo) are talented martial artists and stunt men. Except for Chen Tin Yee, these new faces lacked the charisma of their predecessors. Perhaps that is why many of them were not used again in any more Chang Cheh films. What Chang Cheh lacked in name stars, he made up for in with the large amount of kinetic fight choreography (more than FIVE DEADLY VENOMS and KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM combined), and the sheer unrelenting pace of the fight scenes. Chan Wei Man makes for one of the Shaw Brothers most dangerous and opposing villains, as the Ninja leader Chinua Munda. He looks very Japanese and it was a surprise to discover the actor who played the character is Chinese.
Chang Cheh stages the Ninja action in such as way that it borders on the supernatural. The Five Element Ninjas use techniques based on the five elements. For instance, the Earth Ninjas burrow underground, and kill their victims by using steel pikes to impale them from underneath. The water Ninja’s attack their prey by hiding underwater and surprising their targets by jumping out of the water and delivering the death blow. The wood Ninjas hide in tree stumps, and can take the appearance of tree bark. The fire Ninjas use smoke and explosives to disorient and kill their enemies. The Golden Ninjas wears suits of gold which reflects sunlight into the eyes of their prey, then shoot them with razor sharp projectiles. Besides the emphasis on authentic Ninja weapons and techniques, we get to see the Chinese martial arts as well. Cheh eschews traditional one-on-one hand-to-hand techniques in favor of multiple combatants, each with a different deadly weapon, whether it be sword, axe, scythe, etc. CHINESE SUPER NINJAS is easily as violent and bloody as the LONE WOLF AND CUB series, only the bloody effects are not as believable as the crimson effects from that series. You have people getting impaled, decapitated, and dismembered. In probably the film’s goriest scene, a martial artist trips over his own exposed entrails. Cheh dresses up the doomed heroic characters in white clothing to further contrast the gore.
CHINESE SUPER NINJAS was originally shot in Shawscope 2.35.1. Probably because no widescreen video master exists, NS presents the film in a pan n’ scanned 1.33.1 format. Much as I hate to see a Shaw Brothers film presented this way, CHINESE SUPER NINJAS is still a deserving film. The full frame video image exhibits very little wear. scratches and blemishes are nowhere to be found. Grain is in evidence, but Chang Cheh has been known to purposely apply grain to the film stock, in order to make the visuals more surreal—I believe that is the case with CHINESE SUPER NINJAS. The only other problem with the image is a very slight softness, which I believe is also intentional (because Cheh uses exaggerated back lighting in most of his films). Because of this softness, the detail level is a tad compromised. All in all, this is well above VHS quality full screen transfer. The colors are downplayed, as evidenced by Cheh’s decision to dress most of the characters in stark white outfits. This allows for the flowing crimson to really stand out. Despite the pan n’ transfer, the fight choreography is surprisingly well framed. The Shawscope landscape (actually an interior soundstage) may take a hit, but the Ninja vs. Kung Fu scenes are complete in their primeval depiction. Scenes of the Earth Ninjas leaping out of the ground, Fire Ninjas littering the air with their toxic clouds, and the concluding battle are truly memorable, and something you just don’t see in modern genre films.
This Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 presentation is even better than the similar mix on the KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM DVD. This mono mix boasts a wider frequency range, that recreates the highs and the lows with better accuracy. Most noticeably prominent is the improved bass, which gives extra bite to the kicks, chops, explosions, and other sound effects (and also the score). The English dialog comes through clearly and without distortion, and even at increased volume levels, there is no background noise. I found the score from KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM to be too modern (it had synthesizers) and thus unsatisfying. CHINESE SUPER NINJAS puts things back on track; the score is more period based and far more exciting and dynamic. Again, the wider frequency range allows the score to sound as full as a mono mix has the right to sound. The sound effects, dialog, and score are perfectly integrated.
The only extras are the informative talent bios and filmographies (including pictures) for Chang Cheh, Chen Tin Yee, Chan Wai Man, and Lo Meng. The DVD also has colorful menus, with easy-to-use navigation.
CHINESE SUPER NINJA is one of Chang Cheh’s greatest films and is an absolute must-see if you like Kung Fu films. There are many reasons why you should see this flick—it’s got blood, plenty of deadly Ninja weapons, and magnificent fight choreography. CHINESE SUPER NINJAS also has superior production values, perfect pacing, and a coherent script to drive the action. Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name Trilogy does for Spaghetti Westerns what the Chang Cheh’s Venom movies do for Kung Fu films, and CHINESE SUPER NINJA is at the top of the heap. The biggest disappointment about this DVD is the fact that the original ratio is not retained. But this is a very good full frame presentation. It’s not going to get any better than this folks, so if you want to see Chang Cheh’s bloody masterpiece, don’t let this fact turn you off from purchasing this disc. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices in life.
-- Tony Mustafa