FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS 1982 aka CHINESE SUPER NINJAS aka SUPER NINJAS
Cheng Tien Chi (Hsiao Tien Hao), Lo Mang (Liang Chi Sheng), Chen Hui Min (Kembuchi Mudou), Chen Pei Hsi (Ah Shun/Junko), Wang Li (Li Ying Wu), Chu Ko (Chen Jun), Lung Tien Sheng (Brother Lei), Yu Tai Ping (Huang), Chao Kuo (Huang Han), Kuan Feng (Yuen Cheung, Leader of the Alliance), Chan Shen (Chief Hong)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Not even the best defense...can stop the ninjas!
Losing a tournament to decide the dominant faction in the martial world, Chief Hong tries to save face by enlisting the aid of a ferocious and mysterious group of Japanese martial arts experts. Led by the powerful ninja, Kembuchi Mudou, the valiant Alliance of Martial Artists are sent a challenge to face the Five Elements Formation. Knowing little to nothing of the ninjitsu arts, all eight heroic warriors are killed. Soon, Kembuchi and his ninja clan stealthily enter the Alliance and kill everyone within. One man, Hsiao Tien Hao, survives and returns to an old master that taught him some special skills years before.
Learning that his former elder teacher once studied ninjitsu while in Japan, Hsiao and three other men are taught the arts necessary for countering Kembuchi and his ninjas. Soon, Hsiao and his three brothers issue a similar challenge to the Japanese. With the Chinese fighters possessing equal fighting skills to their enemy, Hsiao seeks revenge for the death of his compatriots by the indomitable Five Element Ninjas.
The year prior to Chang Cheh's departure from Shaw Brothers studio, he delivered what is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While it is easily my favorite film from his long and illustrious resume, I would only consider it a masterpiece of action cinema. It has little to none of the sprawling majesty of his earlier big budget epics such as HEROIC ONES (1970), THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and its sequel ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973), BOXER REBELLION (1975) and SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976) to name some of them.
What it does have is cartoonishly violent and gory action on a large scale. All of Chang Cheh's past exercises in masculine bravado is pushed to the max for this Wuxia/kung fu extravaganza. FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) is the Chang Cheh Greatest Hits package. Muscular and lithe heroes, ruthless and resourceful villains, a conniving female character and his patented spectacularly bloody scenes of death and bodily dismemberment.
While this film has some breathtaking choreography, the picture itself is far from perfection. Considering Cheh wasn't given the enormous budgets of his films from a decade prior, this film is pretty big in scope even for one with mostly fight scenes strung together by the barest of plots. Some of the wirework is sloppy although some of it is quite well done. There's a rather huge scripting problem that presents itself later in the film. Earlier, none of the Alliance were aware of the ninja arts. Later, after they're all dead with only Hsiao surviving, he suddenly remembers his prior teacher having taught him some ninja escape tactics. He uses said skill to break free from his bonds only to pull one over on Junko when she enters the room expecting to have sex with him.
Note Yu Tai Peng falling down against the ruptured Earth emblem. He took a bump to the head by Chu Ko (far right)
The last shot contains some unintentional hilarity. It's not noticeable on first viewings, but if you slow down the film, you'll see Chu Ko knock Yu Tai Peng in the head as they destroy the 'Earth' emblem. For years I wondered why he fell the way he did as the film freeze frames just as 'The End' appears.
Aside from that, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) is my favorite film of its kind. There's so much to like here. It's Chang Cheh at his creative and gruesome best. He was fascinated with bloody scenes; the bloodier the better. For this production, Cheh went crazy with his imagination and this works in the films favor. It definitely isn't a film to take seriously and the picture itself is very self aware of its own absurdity.
Over the years this production has been constantly referred to as a 'kung fu movie'. And while that stigma isn't incorrect, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS is a hybrid Wuxia and kung fu spectacle. The kung fu label applies because of the almost non stop barrage of battles that splash so much red across the screen, whereas Wuxia films generally focus on plot and a large number of characters. The action is an extension of the plot. The action in FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) IS the plot. If it was stripped of its action, there would be next to nothing left akin to a steak bereft of all the juicy bits. Wuxia conventions such as the martial world and the various clans vying for control is the focal point although it's mostly lost amidst a flurry of dizzying fights and acrobatic displays of bloody battles.
The storyline is simplicity. Two clans fight over the ruling faction of the martial world. The losing clan having lost their hidden card, a Japanese samurai, imports his friends, another clan, but from Japan. The ninjas bring over all their dirty tricks and manage to wipe out the honorable Chinese fighters. They then annihilate the clan that hired them insuring no one stands in their way. A survivor in turn learns ninjitsu and returns to issue the same challenge to the oppressors. It's a kung fu revenge story built around Wuxia conventions without all the complex characters, ulterior motives and subterfuge inherent in those stories. It does have a doomed romance angle often found in Wuxia epics. With so much action, it's almost invisible, but it is there nonetheless.
While the film exists solely to glorify fighting and characters dying in the most gruesomely over the top fashion possible, a small number of characterizations manage to shine through. Cheng Tien Chi, Lo Mang and Cheng Pei Hsi are given sufficent build up to learn who they are and what they are like.
If you are overly familiar with Cheh's past movies, than you will already have some idea of what the female character represents. In Cheh's movies, women are either helpless, or a tool to bring the hero to his death. The Kunoichi (female ninja spy) named Junko acts as a combination of both. Entering the Alliance on a ruse, she goes about performing various cleaning duties and preparing meals all the while taking notes of the base that the heroes have fortified with traps should the ninjas come.
Junko (or, Ah Shun as she initially calls herself) feigns falling in love with the stoic Liang Chi Sheng, an honorable man. While he's incredibly proficient in martial arts, he is unable to see through Junko's murderous intentions. Entering his room one evening, he finds her in his bed wearing nothing but a full body fishnet stocking. For saving her life, the woman offers her body as payment, but Liang refuses. He instead states that the two should marry first when the situation with the Japanese has been quelled. Of course, these kinds of men always end up badly in a Chang Cheh movie.
Chang Cheh's heroes, when suffering from a stab wound, stuff their shirt into the gaping hole to slow up the loss of blood
However, they always get the best and most bloodily dramatic send off. Despite being mortally wounded by Junko's ninja weaponry, Liang manages to take out about 30 ninjas before he exits stage right. One of the best fight scenes in the movie (and theirs a damn lot of them), Lo Mang displays fantastic rage as he courageously tries to free his injured and trapped master from his burning room.
While everyone is dying around him, Hsiao is saved at virtually the last second by Junko and tied up by the ninjas. It is here that we learn (after several clues earlier) that this duplicitous woman has something resembling a heart. She is in love with Hsiao, who, earlier in the film berated her, made fun of her, threatened her and generally made her feel unwelcome. Yet she has feelings for this man and at the same time plots the death of the one that saved her and made a proposed promise of a good life should she so choose. This occurrence is prominent even today. People want and desire what they truly cannot possess. But they want it regardless of the cost. Here, the three characters that are given the most substance all fall victim to their emotions. Liang dies because of his stubborn, yet moral intentions.
Portrayed by Lo Mang, he's the ultimate Chang Cheh hero all rolled up into one. Junko dies because she lets her emotions betray her mission. Hsiao dies because of several reasons. He dies out of grief that he may have killed a woman who truly desired him. He dies for revenge for all his friends and his master. He also dies out of desperation. Neither himself, nor his three brothers can bring down the mighty Kembuchi until Hsiao makes a last ditch act on impulse. Just before he brings his life to a close (in dramatic fashion), we see flashes of all his close friends and relationships being extinguished.
With Ah Shun (Junko) at the heart of all this tragedy, her character joins the ranks of other similar 'Cause & Effect' characters in Chang Cheh films such as the role played by Ching Li in his classic dramatic epic, THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973). While infidelity brings about chaos in that film as well as LEGEND OF THE FOX (1979), devious women feature in Cheh's RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1969) and TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980). A woman is also 'Cause & Effect' in the directors signature classic, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). Without that film, HK action would likely have been much different.
FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) was filming during the latter part of 1981. Cheh was also filming HOUSE OF TRAPS and BRAVE ARCHER & HIS MATE as well. With his ninja epic, Cheh was going to introduce a young Taiwanese acrobat/kung fu practitioner who had dabbled in bit roles in several independent productions during the late 1970's.
Ricky Cheng Tien Chi was an incredible talent. Having already headlined in the Shaw distributed indy picture, KUNG FU OF SEVEN STEPS (1979), Cheng was utilized as support in several of Cheh's later venom movies such as BRAVE ARCHER 3 (1981) and ODE TO GALLANTRY (1982). For NINJAS, Cheng was the lead. Although he wasn't the most handsome face, he had an undeniable amount of screen fighting technique. He also starred (with most of this films cast) in Chang's dreadful Shaw swan song, THE WEIRD MAN (1982) before following the venerable director to Taiwan for a series of cheap actioners. Cheng also played one of the men that challenged Jackie Chan in THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979).
Lo Mang was the Toad in the FIVE VENOMS (1978). He was formerly an accountant at Shaw's and became an actor at the insistence of Ti Lung. He co-starred in most of the venom movies alongside his colleagues Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Sun Chien and Chiang Sheng. He split from the group in 1980 to do a solo project, LION VS. LION for director Hsu Hsia, a choreographer turned director. He also took on roles in such Shaw adventures as CLAN FEUDS (1982), the horror/Wuxia hybrid HUMAN LANTERNS (1982), THE BASTARD SWORDSMAN (1983) and the classic SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984).
Lo Mang was a practitioner of Mantis Boxing and utilized the style in his venom pictures. When Shaw's closed, he moved on to various filmmaking studios such as Golden Harvest and Golden Princess. He also could be seen on numerous small screen programs and television specials. He is still active today and was invited to Philadephia in 2007 to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the HK film industry. I was at this event and got to meet one of my childhood idols in person. I was able to chat with Lo Mang briefly and upon asking him why the venoms split, his response was that Jackie Chan changed audience perception of kung fu movies by instilling comedy into the mix. Chang Cheh's style became outdated and audiences interest dwindled. Cheh's movies were often filled a lot of violence and blood and theater patrons in Hong Kong had grown weary of this kind of entertainment.
Shaw's gave FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) some good promotion touting it as a blockbuster. Despite being a bigger, more ambitious production from Cheh's last couple of pictures, it only managed a meager HK1.7 million. Still, it did make twice as much as some of Cheh's other films around this time. By comparison, Jackie Chan's goofy comedy kung fu flick, DRAGON LORD grossed just shy of HK18 million. Another ninja movie was released that year. Entitled NINJA IN THE DRAGON'S DEN, this likewise comedic martial arts movie starred newcomer Conan Lee, Japanese heartthrob, Hiroyuki Sanada and Korean superkicker Hwang Jang Lee. It grossed HK7.6 million.
In Taiwan (and Maylaysia, too) where Chang's movies were better received during the 1980s, a slew of FIVE ELEMENT clones unspooled at a rapid pace. Former venom choreographer and classmate, Robert Tai Chi Hsien was responsible for many of these abominations. Some of the lesser entries include NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARD (1982), MAFIA VS. NINJA (1983), THE SUPER NINJA (1984) and NINJA HUNTER (1984). There were also the more accomplished entries from Lee Tso Nam such as LIFE OF A NINJA (1983) and CHALLENGE OF THE LADY NINJA (1983). Three of the venoms left Shaw's for Taiwan to make their own FIVE ELEMENTS clone called NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP (1984). It was an amalgamation of FIVE VENOMS (1978) and Chang's FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS. 'The Lizard', Kuo Chui directed. In their absence, Cheng Tien Chi and Chu Ko took over choreographing duties for the FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS.
It's a shame the film didn't grab the HK audience. Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang's script gives the film a grand and gaudy look taking full advantage of Shaw's more confined sets. One of the studios huge outdoor sets is seen once while the bulk of the picture is relegated to the stagey look interiors are prone to give off. It greatly benefits the film adding to its overall comic book flavor. The costumes and weapons are the most unique and extravagant among the Shaw Brothers catalog of movies. And that's saying a lot. The weapons the heroes use during the 30 minute fight filled finale is an ingenious contraption that would make both Bond and Batman envious. Concealing over a dozen weapons variations including a flag and stilts, it's easily the single greatest invention in kung fu film history apart from the guillotine weapon seen in Shaw's THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1974).
The five element formation is the real star of the show, though. Each set piece, Gold, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth are some of the wildest script creations ever brought to gory life by the Shaw studio. The Gold element utilizes shields that reflect the suns rays back into the enemies eyes. The shields also contain hidden projectiles. The latter Gold fight features some fine choreography and an extended sequence where the heroes fight with their eyes closed. There's also some nice angles that captures the synchronization of the performers.
The Wood element is, along with the Earth, the most grand guinol of the elements. The ninjas conceal themselves within the trees and rip and tear the flesh of anyone who strays too close to them. The first time we see the Wood element, there's a moment where a ninja hurls a series of shuriken at one of the heroes. The bloody stars embed themselves in an adjacent tree. The other hero notices blood on his friends stomach. The man is oblivious that he has been struck by the ninjas weapon. The shuriken are so sharp and thrown with such speed, the blades have passed straight through his body without him even knowing it!
The Water element is fairly minor compared with the others. The ninjas simply paddle themselves around fooling the heroes into thinking they've drowned. The Japanese tricksters use hooks and rope to bring their challengers to a watery grave. During the finale, the good guys are a bit smarter. This fight is one of the more outlandish replete with flying and skating on the water. It's these types of movements that one would normally find in the multitude of Wuxia movies. Superhuman feats and illogical action are expected in Wuxia storytelling.
Fire is an interesting element in that it also has some women warriors within its ranks. During Lung Tien Sheng's duel with the Fire ninjas, he manages to kill one of them (the only Alliance warrior who manages to do so), but realizes to his surprise it's a woman. We know she's female by virtue of her big breasts that show through her exposed fishnet undergarment. Lung's momentary pause also brings about his death as well. He holds on long enough to curse the villain (who appears in a cloud of red smoke) before succumbing to his stomach wound.
His guts are all over the place!!
Notice the entrails hanging down from Chao Kuo's (left) leg. Chen Hui Min (right) is the leader of the ninjas
The Earth is easily the most outrageous sequence in the film. The first time we see it in action, Huang Han (Chao Kuo) arrives only to be stabbed between his legs from underneath the ground. Brushing it off like it's just a scratch, the ninjas make their explosive appearance ripping themselves from the earth to do battle. Huang fights bravely and receives at least seven stab wounds down there. Chang Cheh goes further to the extreme by showing the man's intestines slowly seeping out and dragging along the ground.
Of course, this being a Chang film, the hero doesn't die just yet. Pushing an already outageous scene even further, Huang finally dies when he steps on his own innards while charging the leader of the ninjas. The villain then slices his chest open.
This lengthy sequence showcasing the Five Element Formation totally decimating the Alliance's eight fighters does an exceptional job making the ninjas out to be a force to be reckoned with. At the beginning, we see these same fighters run roughshod over Chief Hong's men. But when the Alliance's warriors go out to accept their challenge (they are all dressed in white; the color of death in China), they themselves are easily, and in some cases, quickly defeated.
Of course, the ninjas don't fight fair. Meaning 'the art of stealth', ninjitsu uses deceptive means to end the situation as quickly as possible. Regardless of the films overly fantastic nature, Chang Cheh did a great deal of research prior to filming this movie. No doubt some things have been embellished for creative license, but many of the weapons and the Element Formation itself are taken from ancient Japanese writings and collected works.
It was the first martial arts film I saw on television that had a major impression on me. Having seen many of them at the drive in with my parents at the time, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS was special and quickly became my favorite movie. While horror and monster movies had been my main fascination up to that point, this movie was hugely influential on my young mind at the time.
It was also during this film that Lo Mang became one of my hero's. The scene where he is mortally wounded, but carries on fighting to save his master is the most adrenaline charged fight in the entire movie. Lo displays a lot of rage and determination in this sequence especially one shot where he grabs one of the black clad ninja and unloads a flurry of punches on the hapless fighter before drop kicking another through the air impaling him on the swords of the ninja behind him.
Lo's fight during the opening tournament scene is also memorable. Stepping up to clash with a samurai who managed to defeat one of the Alliance, Liang (Lo Mang) never uses a weapon and doesn't even bother with removing his cape(!) Witnessing the fight, it's obvious Liang is toying with the samurai and he easily defeats him taking the warriors sword away from him. This prompts the Japanese to commit seppuka setting the events in motion that bring the Alliance to their doom.
Other notables in the cast are Chen Hui Min, a former kickboxing champion and Triad boss. He appeared in dozens of kung fu movies almost always as a villain. These types of roles suited him very well. Chen can be seen as early as Cheh's ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS in 1973 during the fortress siege near the beginning. Chen Hui Min is distinguished by several tattoos on his body. His back is covered in one and he has some others on his chest and arms. At the time, tattoos were a sign of a gang member although today, tattoos are very commonplace.
Chen was an imposing presence and perfectly cast here as Kembuchi Mudou, the leader of the ninjas. Having already been well known for his fighting career as well as his gangster ties, Chen cut a swath as a villain in other Shaw pictures such as MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982) and the powerful and grim dramatic feature, THE MASTER STRIKES BACK (1985) starring Ti Lung. Chen played a good guy in Ho Meng Hua's SHAOLIN HANDLOCK in 1976.
The battle between Chen and the four brothers during the finale of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS is a highlight and among one of the best ever filmed. Interestingly, Hsiao suggests they fight separately to begin, but Brother Li interjects that they have more men. Hsiao has learned that the ninja do not fight honorably, nor do they fight one on one. So why should they do they same? Still, Kembuchi has several bloody tricks up his sleeve.
Lung Tien Sheng was from Taiwan and already had a career in a few independent kung fu features. Chang Cheh discovered him there when he was preparing to restart the stalled production, TEN TIGERS OF KWANGTUNG (1978-80). Cheh made Lung look great on screen. He got the most mileage out of him as opposed to his work for other Shaw directors during the time. Lung was most impressive as 'The Man In White' from FLAG OF IRON (1980). Lung was also in a supporting capacity in Chang's HOUSE OF TRAPS and THE SWORD STAINED WITH ROYAL BLOOD (both 1982).
Chao Kuo was a young up and coming performer who arrived late on the scene just when Shaw's were having financial woes. He was another impressive discovery by Chang Cheh. He was seen briefly in MASKED AVENGERS (1981), but got a slightly more meatier role here. He was also the co-star of Chang's last Shaw picture, THE WEIRD MAN (1982). Chao remained at Shaw Brothers and got the lead villain role in the gruesome and hopelessly downbeat USURPERS OF EMPEROR'S POWER (1983). Chao disappeared after Shaw's closed down their filmmaking operations in 1985.
The highly anticipated R1 release from Media Blasters contains that all important English dub that many fans slobber over. However, this original English dub isn't totally complete. There are moments where certain cues of music played in the English version, but not in the HK print. Such as the scene where the ninjas enter the Alliance stronghold using their special made tools. A deep bass thrumming theme is heard here in the English version, but is absent in the HK release. It's also absent in this dubbed version. Another sequence is where Kembuchi wipes out his employer, Chief Hong. One of the main themes heard during the opening sequence was used here, but not so in the HK cut.
The actual English dubbed version wasn't utilized here, but merely the English segments have been synced up when dialog is present on screen. This might rile those that get nostalgic for the awful dubbing these movies were often saddled with, but having seen the film dozens of times, it's very noticeable. Also, Celestial's propensity for removing frames of film to eliminate any and all sign of print damage is evident on several occasions as it was on the HK DVD released a couple of years ago.
FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) is the ultimate comic book kung fu movie. It's director Chang Cheh's masterpiece OF ACTION. There's no other film on his resume that's as wildly chaotic as this one. Cheh also explored a 'Five Element Array' in his 1971 'Storm the Fortress' spectacular, THE DEADLY DUO (also on DVD from Media Blasters), but when compared with his bigger productions, the extravagance of the fight scenes takes the place of the extravagance of budget.
Filmed at a time when those grand scale action epics had run their course, Cheh was changing course with the shifting audience trends towards kung fu comedy. Both he and the Shaw Brothers had pushed themselves into a corner with no way out. Chang wasn't able to regain his momentum from the decade prior and left Shaw's to take up shooting independent movies with a massive drop in quality. Fortunately for fans like myself, we still have a great many treasures from the Godfather of Hong Kong action cinema to savor and enjoy for years to come.
This review is representative of the Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock region 1 DVD