Far-out martial arts action from Chang Cheh that packs in everything a kung fu fan could ever want!…
By the 1980s, having already filmed almost every martial arts story imaginable and facing increasing competition from other studios such as Golden Harvest, the Shaw Brothers were getting a little desperate. The continuing search for innovation took their productions in some pretty outlandish directions, resulting in a number of frankly crazy kung fu films which revolved around bizarre gimmicks and whose plots seemed to be inspired not so much as by classic Chinese history or literature as by mind altering drugs. One film which has long stood out from the pack is Five Element Ninjas, directed by studio favourite Chang Cheh, who gave fans such masterpieces as One-Armed Swordsman and Five Venoms. The film has been previously available in a variety of other releases under a plethora of other names, including Chinese Super Ninjas as it was usually known in the West, though these tended to be badly dubbed, featured poor picture quality, and most importantly, were shorn of the gory violence which goes some way to marking it such a classic of its kind. Now finally available uncut, ninja fans can at last experience the colourful madness as it was originally intended, fast, furious and bloody.
To be honest, the plot is relatively unimportant, though for the record it begins with two rival martial arts schools engaging in a contest, which the obviously evil one attempts to win with the aid of a Japanese samurai. Although the good guys triumph, their joy is short lived as the defeated samurai’s friend shows up with his feared ‘five element’ ninja formation, boasting skills relating to gold, wood, water, fire and earth. After the inevitable massacre, the lone survivor (played by later studio star Cheng Tien Chi, who also worked with Chang on Ode to Gallantry and other films) finds an old kung fu master in the nearby woods who agrees to train him in the art of ninjitsu and furnishes him with a new set of friends, all eager to help him take revenge.
Forget all other ninja films – Five Element Ninjas is the one. Indeed, it has pretty much everything that discerning fans could ever want, with colourful and wacky costumes, such as the gold ninjas, wrapped up in glittery tinfoil and the wood ninjas who come disguised as trees, and a veritable catalogue of ninja techniques and tricks. The film shares its time equally between the ninjas and the amusing righteous good guys, and is a delightful showcase of outlandish powers and surreal magical abilities. Basically a series of fight scenes connected by a few bursts of noble dialogue and a touch of espionage, the film packs in an impressive amount of action, most of which is creatively choreographed and acrobatic. Director Chang seems to have really cut loose, and the film is far more dynamic and energetic than most other Shaw Brothers productions, never slowly down from the opening contest through to the final epic duel.
The film in its uncut form certainly is a bloody affair, as the ninjas attack with all manner of nasty looking weapons, including claws and spikes that are horribly handy for eviscerations and the tearing out of throats. Things actually get more violent as the film progresses, with plenty of limb tearing dismemberments and spurting blood geysers towards the end which are all the more impressive for the cheerful fashion in which they are carried out. Actually, it’s a little hard not to feel sorry for the poor ninjas, as through the course of the film they are effectively transformed from mysterious, seemingly invulnerable warrior assassins to mere meat for the grinder, though of course this is all part of the fun.
Needless to say, the film is relentlessly macho, even by Chang’s standards, with lots of brotherly dialogue and stoicism, as well as a strange line in suicides, as a fair number of characters decide to off themselves in the face of defeat, possibly a weird attempt at giving the proceedings an authentically Japanese feel through featuring seppuku scenes. The only female character is an incompetent ninja spy who gets a pretty rough ride of things and who has a habit of stripping down to a see-through body stocking which is certainly fetching, though which probably isn’t too practical when it comes to martial arts, offering very little in the way of support or protection.
This touch of casual nudity only adds to what is already a hugely fun and enjoyable experience and it’s safe to say that Five Element Ninjas truly deserves its cult reputation. An inventive kung fu masterpiece, whilst difficult to be taken seriously, the film is certainly one of Chang’s best latter efforts and offers an incredible amount of high energy bloody action, marking it firmly as nothing less than essential viewing.
Five Element Ninjas is now available on UK Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) from 88 Films.
A version of this review originally appeared on BeyondHollywood.com.