Thanks to Netflix I’ve been indulging in a slew of Shaw Brothers films, including Chang Cheh’s legendary 1982 film Five Element Ninjas. Full of blood, guts and kung-fu shapes glory, this Venoms mob classic has it all. Many a Shaw Brothers fan can attest that this may be the best from the gang that dominated fight choreography in the famed studio’s heyday, and honest to God, it might be the truth.
The premise of the film is pretty simple, but gets much more complicated (or convoluted) once the ninja baddies are introduced. It all starts when two associations duke it out, mano a mano, to see who’s the best in Wulin. Our heroes, the laid back Tian Hao and the righteous Zhi Sheng (played by the amazing Lo Meng), belong to the white robed Martial Arts Alliance led by Sifu Yuan Zeng. Over on the other corner, the treacherous Chief Hong commands the rival association. One by one, Yuan Zeng’s pupils beat the tar out of Hong’s men in fair play…that is, until he brings in a Japanese swordsman. The ronin is the best out of Hong’s bunch and even dupes one of Yuan Zeng’s pupils into Seppuku. Distressed, Zhi Sheng decides to take him on bare-handed in a marvelous fight scene and wins. Tian Hao taunts the ronin into Seppuku and he duly obliges, but not before warning Yuan Zeng about the ninja who will avenge him in due time.
Soon after, Yuan Zeng’s pupils are given a challenge letter from Cheng Yun Mudou (portrayed by Chan Wai Man), leader of the Five Element Ninjas. Realizing that Chief Hong’s challenge was a ruse to bring the Ninjas to China in order to usurp his position, Sifu Yuan urges caution among his students. However, his words prove futile as each group of elements, Gold, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth, dispatches our heroes in an unrelenting storm of bloody mayhem. As a result, Tian Hao and Zhi Sheng become the only senior pupils left to protect Sifu Yuan from Chief Hong’s machinations. This culminates in Cheng Yun Mudou sending out Senji, his kunoichi, to pose as a damsel in need of support. Zhi Sheng falls for the ruse hook, line and sinker as she builds trust with him, while Tian Hao remains ambivalent to her presence. What our heroes don’t know is that Senji is using her time behind the scenes to map out the Sifu’s lair. By the time they do realize this, it’s too late and EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL. Senji betrays Zhi Sheng, ninjas massacre the school, we learn kinky ways to tie people up and find out how hilarious asphyxiation can be. With all this carnage happening in the middle of the film, how the hell can our heroes get revenge against those dastardly ninjas?
Five Element Ninjas is a jaw-dropping triumph in execution (pun intended). Chang’s camera work is top notch as he captures the action at a relentless pace, where hits, parries and blocks pepper the screen with long lasting frames and very little cutting. Furthermore, each fight on display is of the highest quality, featuring Chang Cheh’s love of weapons, blood and sets. Speaking of sets, the Ninjas’ use of the environment in the film may seem comical at first, but it comes together like nothing else, especially with the Wood Ninjas in the forest. In terms of stunts, all the actors on display show so much prowess and skill that it’s almost baffling. During my first view of the film, my jaw was literally hanging out, especially during the relentlessness of the first half.
If there’s any downside to Five Element Ninjas, it’s that the pacing is quite uneven, with Senji’s infiltration being the most obvious example. When Senji’s not scribbling the layout of the lair to the Ninja horde, she’s out there doing chores or being doe-eyed with Zhi Sheng. Also, Tian Hao is a gigantic jerk to her. Now it might seem that he’s justified for acting like this in the second half, but Chang Cheh throws something in that does give you a little food for thought later on (no spoilers). Overall, Senji’s infiltration is a very slow-moving arc in the film that deflates it somewhat, but I have the feeling that it’s intentional since it helps to make the Ninja invasion all the more jarring and visceral. It does get a little slow in the beginning of the second half due to lots of training scenes, but it’s a necessary set up for the final epic showdown which does not disappoint. Filled with dynamic fights, epic bloodshed and enough ninjas to give you seizures, Five Element Ninjas is another Shaw Brothers classic from Chang Cheh that not only lives up to it’s reputation, but does so with gut-trampling panache.