August 24, 2011

Reader's Choice: Five Element Ninjas (1982)

Directed by Chang Cheh. Starring Cheng Tien-chi, Lung Tien Hsiang, Lo Meng, and Chan Wai-Man. Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters)
Running time: 01:48:03
Country: Hong Kong

Picked by venoms5

The master of a Martial Arts school receives a challenge from a group of deadly ninjas who base their style and methods of attack on the five elements: gold, fire, earth, water, and wood (no love for air?). However, the master informs his students that he's suddenly fallen ill from being poisoned and isn't allowed to partake in Martial Arts fighting for "three months" (doctor's orders?), and subsequently locks himself in a room, leaving his students to basically fend for themselves and hold down the fort. But when a large number of his pupils are quickly vanquished by the ninjas throughout a series of levels that span out over the first act of the film, his two best students (one of whom is played by Lo Meng from FIVE DEADLY VENOMS) are left to pick up the pieces and hopefully defeat the clan of ninjas on their own.

A lot of people throw the words "action-packed" around when describing many a genre film, but trust me when I say that this one is damn near unrelenting in its displays of well-executed and masterfully-choreographed fight sequences. My mind was blown before the opening credits sequence even finished as I witnessed a showcase of sorts involving the aforementioned Martial Arts students taking on members of a rival school. The film doesn't waste any time when it comes to introducing the ninjas either. Instead of explaining exactly who they are and what their motives are in regards to challenging the film's protagonists, the subsequent fight scenes speak for themselves as the students face the unbridled bad-assery of the ninjas, who utilize their devotion to the elements in rather unique ways. Ninjas disguise themselves as trees, burst out of the ground like zombies, and generally incorporate some rather peculiar attack methods. It's like a kung-fu version of Megaman or something, what with all the "elemental" villains and such.

I can't really speak on any of the actors in the film and whether FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS is a great example of any particular person's work - even when it comes to the only person I'm remotely familiar with, Lo Meng. What I can say is that everyone in the film is no slouch when it comes to partaking in stunts and incredibly fast-paced fight sequences involving multiple people at a time. I'd really like to see some of the outtakes and gag reels from these Martial Arts films, or even a mere glimpse at how the actors rehearsed a lot of the fight scenes. It all seems so natural, but I'm sure people got hurt or screwed up on many an occasion.

I hate to use FIVE DEADLY VENOMS as an example, but in my opinion it's a good point of reference for anyone who hasn't delved too deeply into the genre. Like Chang Cheh's VENOMS, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS is full of colorful, over the top characters. The entire film has a comic book atmosphere about it, which I suppose is inherent when it comes to Wuxia films. Speaking of which, there's a ton of great wire-work in this that never feels overdone, but at the same time it's far from sparing. Another aspect of the action worth noting is the gore. We don't get much of the geysers of blood that seem to be synonymous with samurai films, but there's still quite a bit of blood and gore here, including one of my favorite scenes, which involves an unfortunate ninja's extremities being simultaneously ripped from his body by four of the protagonists.

So it's established that FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS kicks some major ass, but one last thing of note would be how hilarious this movie is. In order to experience the hilarity, one must watch this film not in its natural Mandarin, but rather the English-dubbed version, which features some truly atrocious but entertaining voice work from a group of people who sounded like they were trying to make a mockery out of the film (actually, I wouldn't be surprised if only two people provided the characters' voices). Anyone who watches this with the English dub while the subtitles are on will notice a drastic difference. At one point one of the main characters promises to avenge his brother's death, only for his brother to nonchalantly chime in: "I'm not dead yet." The subtitles read much differently. Good times.

Score: 8


  1. I don't know why but I have never been a fan of ninjas or ninja movies so I have mixed feelings about this one. I don't even like Pirates :/ I mainly like Sailors just because I always wanted to say "Heeeeeeeeyy Sailors!" lol I know I'm crazy :D

    P.s. sorry for the lack of commenting on you're blog. I'm not trying to ignore you it's just my blog spazzes out sometimes and it won't let me comment on you're blog cause it's says it's set to private and other times it'll let me comment. 0.o

  2. Weird... someone else said they had trouble commenting on here too. And my comment on your blog wasn't a jab at you at all... it was just my way of saying that in general it would be nice if everyone who followed other blogs actually left comments. The number of followers I have comes second to the amount of feedback people actually leave.

  3. Aaaron, no worries. This didn't feel noobish at all, and I still haven't seen this one yet either (I still have a HUGE Shaw Bros. blindspot... I like to think that's born more out of how prolific they were than how much of a slacker I am).

    One thing I'll be interested to watch unfold when I get around to watching this is whether or not they incorporate the Japanese origins of the ninja at all. It seems more likely that SB chose this as a cinematic archetype worth building a film around because of how popular ninjas were during the 80s decade, and to give it narrative legs in the international market. In any case, great review. Consider my palette whetted!

  4. Here's a film from my childhood! For years, I wondered what this awesome flick was and then a friend (a true connoisseur of kung-fu films) lent me his copy of Five Element Ninjas. And my memory of this flick didn't do it justice at all. This is an imaginative, bold, and wacky piece of entertainment. Cool review, duder.

  5. Good stuff, Aaron! I'm really glad you liked this one. I get a kick out of showing it to people not familiar with it and watch them nearly flip over the couch during certain spots. This being a Wuxia/kung fu hybrid, the two factions are battling over control of the martial world at the beginning. The ninjas were "invited" by the samurai who killed himself. Upon their arrival, considering how formidable they were, they decided to rule the martial world since they would be pretty much unchallenged.

    Cheh and I Kuang did stick to the historical aspects of the ninja and their original Chinese origins, as well as the fight tactics they used, but gloriously exaggerating everything to an outrageous level. Also, the role of the female ninja had some dramatic license taken with it, too.

    Chen Hui Min, the actor who plays the main villain was a real kickboxing champion and also a Triad boss. The lead Ricky Cheng, an incredible acrobat, had been in movies since the mid 70s, but it was Chang Cheh that really pushed his career even if he never really hit the big time. The Shaw's distributed an indy feature he did called KUNG FU OF SEVEN STEPS (1979) and from there, he began appearing in supporting roles of heroes and villains till 5EN which was his first major role.

    I got to meet Lo Mang in Philadelphia for a lifetime Achievement Award he received back in 2007. Nice guy even if the event was sloppily put together.

    I did a review of this, too, Aaron last year if you are interested. It puts the film in perspective in Cheh's career at that time as well as the other movies that copied it and a bunch of other stuff. Also, three of the other members of the venom crew took off for Taiwan and made their own version of this movie entitled NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP.

    If you liked this one, you def gotta see MASKED AVENGERS (1981). Media Blasters is supposed to be releasing that one at some point as well as some other venom movies such as THE REBEL INTRUDERS and THE MAGNIFICENT RUFFIANS. They also released one of the more popular venom films KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM last year.

  6. Oh, yeah, the dubbing thing...there was between 3 and 5 dubbers doing all the voices. After you see a handful of them, you'll recognize one voice from another. The movies were dubbed in HK and done quickly within three days before moving on to the next one. There were so many movies. The Shaw's alone released between 40 and 50 movies a year and that's not counting all the other Asian pick ups and foreign pictures, too.

  7. Wow, thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    Karl: Thanks for the kind words and I definitely look forward to your thoughts when you get around to this one. I'm glad to know that I'm not alone in our circle of friends when it comes to being a little behind in our knowledge of Shaw Bros.

    Richard: Thanks for the comment and glad to hear that you're a fan of this one.

    Brian: I appreciate you coming through with the great recommendation, although it was high on my list anyway because of you suggesting it in the comments section of one of my LONE WOLF reviews.

    I wasn't clear as to what the whole school vs. school face-off at the beginning was, so thanks for the insight on that.

    I'm definitely adding those latter titles to my must-see list, or at least I'll be on the lookout for them. FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS has really whetted my appetite for some more Shaw Bros. films, and especially those of Chang Cheh.

    Also, that's some interesting background info regarding the dubbing. Were these American voice actors in Hong Kong, or were they actually locals who spoke English?

  8. Not sure if there were ever any Americans, but they predominantly were British and Australian voice actors living in Hong Kong. Oh, and about the fight scenes--they were choreographed on the spot. No prep time at all. They would design the moves right then and there and go over them then shoot the scenes. Any mistakes they would just improvise and work around them. Speaking of mistakes, watch the last shot in slow motion and you'll see Wang Li actually knock the shit out of Yu Tai Ping. I always wondered why he fell down against the Earth emblem the way he did.

    There were also a number of movies the Shaws started and scrapped for a number of reasons, too. It would be great if that footage still existed. Up until several years ago, the Chinese didn't think much about their cinematic culture. They pretty much hate anything more than a few years old. I have a bunch of Asian friends and they are dumbfounded as to why I have an interest in "this old stuff".

  9. Interesting. I thought I heard some Australian flavor in one of those voices!

    The fact that the scenes were choreographed on the spot is absolutely amazing to me. So with that being said, I'm assuming there weren't a lot of outtakes?

    Also, I did notice that scene at the very end and actually watched it a second time because I noticed the shot froze with him in a rather awkward position. I thought it was quite funny.

  10. Chang Cheh, like a few other directors at Shaw Brothers was favored because he could shoot very fast. He often worked on three, maybe four movies ALL AT ONCE. They'd shoot a few hours on one set, then switch over to another for a few hours then repeat. In between all this, Cheh would still find time to write scripts for other movies.

    He sometimes had as many as five to eight movies coming out within a year. Granted, the quality varies from one film to the next. Personally, I much prefer Cheh's output between 1967 to 1976. He lost favor with critics during the venom stage of his career when he switched over to more comic book style movies. Cheh was an incredible innovator in HK and started as many careers as probably Roger Corman did here. By the 80s, he, like the Shaw's, had ceased being innovators and became imitators following the changing audience trends of the time. John Woo was his student and he worked as an AD on a few of Cheh's classic movies from the early 70s such as VENGEANCE! THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG and BLOOD BROTHERS.

    I've got a bunch of Cheh related articles I wrote including a two part Best Of. A lot of his work is available on DVD here, btw.