Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Five Element Ninjas (1982)


Directed by Chang Cheh

Two warring clans vie for control of the Martial World through a series of matches. The faction led by Chief Hong is disgraced and in his shame, brings in an evil clan of ninja to avenge his lose of face. Challenging the Alliance to a duel at five separate locations utilizing a mysterious formation known as 'The Five Elements', the Alliance accepts despite their unfamiliarity with the art. The eight chosen fighters are eliminated by the Japanese specialists and their deceptive weaponry. Setting their sights on the Alliance stronghold, the ninjas, led by Kembuchi Mudou (ex kickboxing champion, Chen Hui Min), raze the base and annihilate the remaining fighters. One man survives and seeks out his old teacher who is familiar in the ways of the Five Element Ninjas.

Chang Cheh was always known for his gory displays of heroic bravado and melodramatic machismo. For this, his next to last production for the glorious Shaw Brothers studio, the director lets the blood and limbs fly with comic book abandon unlike anything in his long, viscera strewn resume. Violent in the extreme, many of the gruesome acts are so over the top, you can't help but marvel at the absurdity of the whole thing. It's impossible to take a scene seriously wherein a fighter (Chao Kuo; see above image) is stabbed six times between the legs, but somehow manages to continue fighting to the end--his intestines slowly make their way down his legs till he steps on them allowing his enemy to finally deliver a fatal blow! As outrageous as this sounds, the sight of a warrior fighting valiantly to the last even though "his guts are all over the place", is taken from plays of the Peking Opera, a centuries old style of dance and storytelling that was a major influence on the director; a stamp of which is on dozens of his movies. Only here, this popular Opera device is taken to extremes.

Chang Cheh has always had an eye for spectacular demises for his heroes and villains, but here, he's at his most creative. As silly and unbelievably hokey as it may be, there's a jaw dropping amount of ingenuity to many of these scenes. Former Venom, Lo Mang, has a co-starring role as a chivalrous swordsman; very similar to the countless such warriors seen in many of Cheh's pictures from his earlier career. When we first see Lo at the beginning during his fight with the Samurai, he displays his indomitable spirit by not only fighting both bare handed, but he doesn't even bother to remove his cape! Later in the film, Lo has one of the most amazing sequences in the movie--the ninjas have infiltrated the base, everyone but a scant few are dead and the chief is trapped as the ninjas shoot explosive arrows into his room. Wounded, Lo valiantly attempts to rescue his leader taking on an entire cadre of black clad ninja killers in the process.

The scenes featuring the 'Five Element Ninjas' of the title occur near the beginning and at the end in a wild thirty minute free for all. The exotic weaponry the Gold, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth ninjas use are nasty implements that hide additional weapons used to snuff out an enemy when they least expect it. For the end battle, the heroes come prepared, brandishing an over-sized 'Swiss Army Knife' of sorts; it's a supreme piece of killer cutlery that contains so many varied methods of dispatch, Q Branch would surely be envious. Arms and legs are removed from bodies, viscera is ripped and torn from one end of a Shaw studio set to another and blood liberally sprays skyward in this Shaw Brothers Wuxia/Kung Fu hybrid spectacular.

Even with its basic plot, colorfully brutal action scenes and gore, Chang Cheh manages to cram some underlying themes within this bloody chivalry sandwich. One of the most striking is the notion that women are naturally attracted to men that despise them while they emotionally (and in this case) physically destroy those who could provide genuine love for them. Near the end of the film, this fraudulent female pays for her treachery in true Chang Cheh style. Also, white is the color of death in China. All the heroes of the Alliance wear white. They are built up to be these awesome fighters only to be quickly and sadistically dispatched upon their fateful meeting with the Five Elements, thus reinforcing and amplifying the powers of the Japanese invaders. The white color of the heroes clothes anticipate their impending doom and also provide a loud contrast helping the Shaw's brand of stage blood and guts to stand out that much more.

Star, Ricky Cheng and supporting player, Chu Ko truly deliver some choreographical masterpieces here in the fight scenes. The good guys fight hard and the bad guys fight dirty. The ninja had recently found popularity at the time with the release of the ridiculous ENTER THE NINJA (1980) starring Franco Nero. FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS did little business in Hong Kong as that type of film was on the wane, replaced by far more light-hearted fare and a preponderance of modern settings. Despite the decline of Shaw's Hong Kong audience during this time, they continued making Wuxia action pictures as there was a huge demand in the foreign markets for their product as well as in Taiwan and Malaysia. FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS must have done well in other Asian territories for after its release, there was a slew of similar movies unleashed in its wake with many showcasing a far less elaborate version of the 'Five Element Formation'. The film is fondly remembered today and has quite a fan following attached to it. While it might not be a truly great movie in the sense of some of Chang Cheh's earlier works like THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) or THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972), FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) is little more than a super hero comic brought to bloody life by Hong Kong's most innovative action cinema director.

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