When mad monk Abbott White (Jack Lung Sai-Ga) loses a kung fu fight against Shaolin Temple’s top student Lung Wu (Chen Shan), he retreats to a mystical cave and hones his skills by “absorbing the essence” - basically, having sex - with captive women. Thus making a mockery of martial arts students who waste their lives practicing kicks, stances, etc. when they could be getting some action. Abbott White’s rigorous (yeah, I’ll bet) training endows him with iron skin invulnerable to all weapons (and which goes “clang!” whenever he’s struck) and the ability to make the ground explode into colourful puffs of smoke. He allies himself with a dastardly band of Japanese ninjas dressed in shiny gold lamé outfits (all the better for sneaking stealthily through the forest), practice their supernatural skills on a sort of ninja jungle-gym and are led by some guy (William Yen) sporting a curious Charlie Chaplin moustache. All one-hundred percent historically accurate - don’t let anyone tell you different.
Disguised as Shaolin monks the ninjas try to assassinate the playboy prince. This setup convinces him to turn a blind eye when Abbott White’s Wu Tang clan and their ninja allies slaughter the inhabitants of Shaolin Temple and burn it to the ground. After Lung Wu’s rematch with Abbott White ends disastrously, the dying man entrusts his precious kung fu manual to his only daughter. Years later, the now grownup Lung Ling embarks on a dangerous journey to bring the manual to the descendents of those Shaolin monks, young heroes Ah Biao and Weng Ting (Alexander Lo Rei), whose grumpy father Hung (Mark Lung Goon-Mo) somewhat unhelpfully keeps telling him how rubbish he is. The boys prove their worth fending off a surprise ninja attack, but have to pull something special out of the bag if they are to overcome Abbott White.
After the mighty Shaw Brothers shut down production and other studios concentrated on making contemporary action movies, period kung fu movies retreated to the realms of low-budget, fly-by-night filmmaking. Among the most beloved by fans are the schlock ninja movies Wu Kuo-Ren made starring Alexander Lo Rei, Hong Kong’s go-to actor for quality ninja fun. Or rather “anti-ninja” fun, since he was more likely to be killing ninjas than playing them. Lo Rei (also a fight choreographer and director in his own right) may be less well-known than his Hollywood-backed contemporary Shô Kosugi but his movies - which include the likes of The Super Ninja (1984), Ninja in the USA (1985) by Kuo-Ren and Ninja Kids (1982), Shaolin vs. Ninja (1983) and the legendary, four-hour long, soft-core porn/fantasy/action epic Ninja Final Duel (1986) - are far more beguiling.
So it is with Ninja Hunter, which may be cheesy as heck but is well-paced and chockfull of dynamic fight choreography. Breathtaking acrobatic stunt-work ensues as ninjas drop from trees to garrotte their enemies, spin in mid-air, burrow underground like moles and - in the memorable prelude to the heroes’ thrilling face-off with Abbott White - transform into a flying carpet! And then there is the whole tantric kung fu-strengthening sex angle with a steamy liaison between Abbott White and traitorous nun Niao Wah and Lung Ling going undercover as it were as his captive plaything to discover his “secret vulnerable spot.” Ah yes, that old ruse. Kuo-Ren counterbalances such brazen sexploitation with equal opportunities for the female characters to pull of fantastic feats, including the flying Abbess of Ou Mei, whom Abbott White petulantly denounces as “a real goody-goody.”
Plot takes a back seat to lengthy battle scenes but shows a generosity of spirit, as when Ling helps Niao Wah escape after she repents her evil ways, and a propensity for surreal detours including our heroes being attacked by a kung fu zombie pickled inside a large jar. Students of Chinese history will know the real denizens of Shaolin Temple were brought down by their own duplicitous imperial government rather than a bunch of ninjas in gold lamé. While Ninja Hunter’s treatment of this oft-told story is facile compared to say, the Shaw Brothers’ production Shaolin Temple (1976), it is livelier and a lot more fun.