Chinese Super Ninjas aka Chinese Super Ninja aka Five Element Ninjas is, without question, my favorite Kung Fu film of all time. Released in 1982 by the Shaw Bros., it was one of the last big, bloody, fight movies to come out of Hong Kong. Comedy martial arts flicks were gaining traction, thanks especially to Jackie Chan, and the audience’s desire for the over the top, bloody violence of the past was waning. As such, Chinese Super Ninjas did not do well at the box office. It seemed doomed to be forgotten, overshadowed by the absolute gems that had come before and the silly, more family friendly action that rose to prominence during the mid to late 80’s. (proving once again that the 80’s, despite what some would have you believe, were in fact, for the most part, terrible) But, the film found life first on TV and later through DVD’s and blogs/websites. And for good reason. This film is one of the most incredible action movies ever made. It is the quintessential comic-book Kung Fu film. It is so over the top, so outlandish, that it’s a wonder it was even made in the first place. Quite simply, this movie is one of the finest examples of old-school Kung Fu movie making and not just a must see but a cannot miss.
Directed by the legendary Chang Cheh, Chinese Super Ninjas takes the traditional revenge storyline and flips the script. The movie starts with a battle between two rival clans for control of the martial world. The Alliance of Martial Artists, wearing all white, the Chinese color of death, easily defeat the initial set of challengers put forth by Chief Hong. Chief Hong though, has a ringer. He calls a Japanese Samurai to be his final representative. The Samurai wins his first fight but is defeated rather easily by Liang Chi Seng, played beautifully by Lo Meng. This fight is one of the best in the film. Meng is so believable as a fighter that when he tells the Samurai that he will fight him using nothing but his hands, well, you know the Samurai is in for a bad time. Meng toys with him for a bit before ultimately embarrassing the Samurai. The Samurai, being a Samurai, commits seppuku (ritualistic suicide) upon his defeat setting the rest of the film into motion. Normally the battle for control is the ending of a Kung Fu flick, not the beginning. Chief Hong, utterly desperate after his defeat at the hands of the Alliance, enlists the help of a clan of Japanese ninjas lead by the awesome Kembuchi Mudou. (played by kick-boxing champion and for real Triad boss Chen Hui Min!) Kembuchi sends the Alliance a challenge to face off against his Five Element ninjas (wood, earth, fire, water, and gold). The Alliance accepts, sends eight of its best fighters all of whom are murdered quite brutally. The fights can best be compared to video games that have you go against the end boss at the beginning of the game before you have powered up. You try, maybe even get in a few shots, but at the end of the day get your ass kicked every which way till Sunday. Kembuchi then sends his ninjas to attack the rest of the Alliance, killing all but one of them, as well as Chief Hong, you know… just to tie up any loose ends. The last survivor of the Alliance, Hsiao Tien Hao, returns to an old master of his to learn the secret techniques needed to defeat the elemental ninjas. He recruits three men to his cause and sets off on a path against Kembuchi and his ninjas.
Now, while that sounds like a lot of set up, and to be fair it is, this movie is not just a typical Kung Fu film. It is more of a blend between Kung Fu and Wuxia. Wuxia films are the more epic Chinese martial arts movies. There may come a time where there is a recurring feature on Wuxia films here on Geekade but until then, whenever you see Wuxia mentioned, think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I digress… Once Hsiao learns the secret techniques he needs, this movie becomes something truly remarkable. Hsiao and his brothers set off to exact revenge for the Alliance carrying the coolest weapon I have ever seen in a Kung Fu film. Every piece of their, for lack of a better word, costume, is used to help defeat one of the elements. Their axes come apart and form different weapons. Their fishnet shirts act as nets. I don’t want to give everything away as it really is something special when you see how everything works together but suffice it to say, I was blown away by how creative and clever this design was when I first saw this film. (and still am every time I watch, it’s just fucking dope) In fact, the entire thing is just entirely clever. The Five Elemental Ninjas are some of the most creative, sometime hokey, characters in all of martial arts cinema. The Gold ninjas use their element to cause blindness and hide daggers, the Wood ninjas have tiger hand claws and shuriken and hide in trees, the Water ninjas are… kind of lame actually but have nets (it’s a quick fight, don’t worry), the Fire ninjas use smoke and fire, and the Earth ninjas have spears and fight by tunneling underground and exploding upwards into their enemies. It’s filmed beautifully most of the time, again the water scenes are bit obvious, and really creates a comic book like feel for the film. The choreography is on par with the very best examples of the genre and the way each element is defeated is completely satisfying. The final fight between the four brothers and Kembuchi is a staggering piece of work. Equal parts violent and beautiful, these actors gave one hell of a performance and along with Chang Cheh, delivered an absolute masterwork of Kung Fu cinema.
I could, and have, gush about this movie for hours. It is not just my favorite Kung Fu films but one of my favorite films of all time. I have seen this movie more times than I can remember and each time I find something new that makes me fall more in love with it than before. The plot, some of which, like the love story I left out only because it is better to experience it unbiased, is one of the better takes on the typical revenge storyline. The action scenes are breathtaking. This movie has it all. I can think of no better film to conclude our summer long journey through old school Kung Fu. There are many more I could have included in the previous weeks. There are films I desperately love that didn’t make the cut. (but will maybe be written about in the future) Hell, for the purposes of this series I didn’t even venture into more modern examples of the genre though they too may be written about at a latter date. Regardless of that however, be they old or new, classic or cult classic, Chinese Super Ninjas is the endpoint. It is, in my opinion, the measuring stick. If it is new to you, allow me to admit my jealousy. I wish I could see this movie for the first time again. That joy of discovery was so intense it can only be likened to the first time you hear a song that absolutely stops you dead in your tracks and consumes your world. If you are already a fan, introduce someone to this film. Invite them in to the club. They will be better people for it. Check out the trailer below and then head here to catch the whole film. (though you should just grab a copy from amazon, it’s a need to own flick) Make sure to follow me on twitter and instagram, @geekadedan, and let me know what you thought or to suggest movies for me to watch. I appreciate each and every one of you who have read through this summer series and I sincerely hope you saw something new along the way.