Five Element Ninjas
Director: Chang Cheh
Writer: Chang Cheh, Kuang Ni
Stars: Tien-Chi Cheng, Tien Hsiang Lung
Five Element Ninjas is currently available on Netflix streaming
Five Element Ninjas, the bonkers ultraviolet kung fu masterpiece, was made during the slow fade of Hong Kong’s great Shaw Brothers Studio in the early eighties, and easily surpasses even the greatest of its predecessors (Heroes of the East, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, Crippled Avengers) in action, bloodshed, and overall madness. I call this film bonkers because through my western eyes, everything about it is absolutely crazy. The film opens with a brief textual explanation that all weapons and costumes in the film are based on ancient Chinese and Japanese designs, but who cares? The crazy weapons (a huge bladed circle vs. a huge axe) and crazier costumes (threadbare white capes fastened around the neck by a loose-fitting silver chain) only serve to give the impression that the action is not taking place in reality, but in the opium-addled mind of kung-fu fantasist Chang Cheh.
I should state here that I have no direct knowledge of any opium abuse, but given Chang Cheh’s filmography, I am given to assume he must have been on something. Between the years 1966 and 1988, a scant twenty-two years, he directed an astounding 84 films, many of them classics of the genre (Vengeance, Shaolin Martial Arts, One-Armed Swordsman). This prodigious output suggests that the director’s heart probably wasn’t always in the films he made, which is undoubtedly true, but in Five Element Ninjas, every fight scene seems painstakingly choreographed, making each and every one of them a joy to watch.
Having been a long-time fan of kung-fu movies, one of my biggest complaints about the genre is the way that one fighter can defeat an entire army, as they seem to have agreed to fight him one by one, in sequence. I watch a fight scene in Legend of Drunken Master, Jackie Chan and Lau Kar-Leung’s own masterpiece, and I cannot help but notice the crowd of fighters simply watching the fight, and I wonder why they don’t try to help. Five Element Ninjas does not have this sickness, and watching one man fight crowds of enemies single-handedly becomes ludicrous and beautiful. Opponents do not take turns, attacking in true unison, but the one fighter always seems to be a step ahead of all of them, flipping, turning his back, and falling on the ground, making the fight scenes more akin to underwater ballet than an actual physical contest.
When considering the plot, and what actually happens in the film, it seems obvious that the director, Chang Cheh, did not like women. The few female characters are all treacherous and villainous betrayers, but these elements, like every part of the plot, seem secondary to the action. In this review, I’ve described none of the plot of this film because in all honesty, every plot development is truly just filling the gaps between fight scenes, of which there seem to be more than I would have thought possible. Five Element Ninjas is in its bones and at its heart the most joyous celebration of the fight scene I have ever watched. If you are the type who can get lost in these sequences of outrageous violence (at one point a fighter is literally pulled into four pieces) and beautiful swirling movement (the training sequence is a masterpiece), then this is a film for you.