Given ninjitsu is a Japanese martial art one would expect the best ninja movies to hail from Japan. And yet aside from the classic Shinobi no Mono (1962), the charming Azumi (2003) and a handful of anime titles, in its native land the genre is largely synonymous with silly softcore porn. By contrast, the Hong Kong film industry produced scores of memorable ninja actioners including the two best ones ever made: the masterly Duel to the Death (1981) and the sublime Ninja in the Dragon’s Den which also has arguably the finest opening title sequence of all time.
In a zany, Monkees style sequence, dozens of ninjas burst out of the sand, leap, flip and cavort to the sounds of a funky ninja pop song: “They were men of the night! They were ready to fight! Ooh shaka-ninja!” Frankly, all movies, even Hugh Grant romantic comedies, should open this way. That catchy “ooh shaka-ninja!” chorus is repeated throughout the movie. Feel free to sing-along. Rogue ninja Yuen Wu (Hiroyuki Sanada) kills a high-ranking Japanese official on his hit list of revenge targets, prompting the outraged Ega clan to come knocking at his door. However, he and his dutiful wife Akane (Tsushima Kaname) escape to China in search of their next target. Meanwhile, muscular Master Ching (Conan Lee) hones his skills at the family temple while his lecherous buddy, Ah Chee (Tai Bo) reads porno novels all day. Ching is particularly close to his Uncle Foo, a gentle, philosophically-inclined old man whom he nonetheless suspects harbours a deep, dark secret. Turns out, Uncle Foo is actually a Japanese fugitive named Fukuda and a ninja to boot. Years ago, he was partly responsible for killing Yuen Wu’s father. Now his crimes come back to haunt him as Wu arrives looking for revenge. But Ching resolves to pit his wits against Wu’s array of ninja tricks.
Bear with those early silly slapstick and sex gags because Ninja in the Dragon’s Den soon finds its groove once Hiroyuki Sanada and Conan Lee barrel through some of the most astounding acrobatic sequences ever committed to film. First there is the famous stilt-fighting sequence with Ching tottering on high doing jaw-dropping split-kicks in battle against a bullying Peking Opera performer. He’s dressed as the Monkey King, his opponent is garbed like the Bull Demon in a clever recreation of their famous mythological duel. Then Ching fights a phoney Taoist exorcist atop a stack of tables piled up to the ceiling. But by far the most celebrated set-piece is the extended sequence where Ching sets a series of elaborate traps, only for Yuen Wu to outfox him with a series of equally ingenious escapes. It becomes an exhausting, enthralling battle of wits and results in some exquisite imagery: silver dust illuminates the hitherto hidden ninja; a captive woman turns into a poison gas-spurting mannequin; a burning man leaps into a lake that erupts in a ring of fire.
Such striking scenes sprung from the imagination of famed action choreographer Corey Yuen Kwai, here making his directorial debut. Even the dialogue scenes are clever and unique, most memorably one that cuts between a series of reflective mirrors, underlining the fragmented nature of the protagonist and his past. Yuen Kwai was well versed in the history of Peking Opera and how offbeat action could be used to convey subtext. He started out as one of the famous Seven Little Fortunes alongside childhood Peking Opera pal Jackie Chan and went on to be one of the most important, if sadly unsung, talents in Hong Kong cinema. Under his guidance Japan’s biggest star: Hiroyuki Sanada found the perfect showcase for his acrobatic talents. The pair reteamed for the excellent Royal Warriors (1986).
Besides being Sanada’s first foray into Hong Kong film, Ninja in the Dragon’s Den marked the screen debut of Conan Lee - whose real name is Lloyd Hutchinson! - an incredible athlete if indifferent actor. If his shaggy hairdo and comic performance recall the young Jackie Chan, it is no surprise given legendary producer and occasional director Ng See-Yuen was the man behind Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978), which made Jackie a star and launched the career of director Yuen Woo Ping. N.G. (as he likes to be called) is famed as one of the smartest men in the industry and having discovered stars as varied as John Liu, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Cynthia Rothrock, held similar ambitions for Conan Lee. Things didn’t quite work out that way as after a contract dispute, Lee quit N.G.’s Seasonal Films and found minor success in Hollywood as a bit-player and occasional supporting turn, notably in Eliminators (1986) (as a ninja!) and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998).
Despite some problems maintaining a cohesive narrative (notably the inexplicable revelation that Yuen Wu could speak Chinese all along!), the plot takes interesting twists and turns and proves unexpectedly moving and dramatic in parts with solid themes about the futility of blind vengeance and the misunderstandings that arise from cultural ignorance. Typical of the whiplash mood swings in HK film, the last twelve minutes arrive out of left-field. Having settled their differences, our two heroes unite to combat an evil sorcerer (famed Korean kicker Hwang Jang-Lee, another N.G. discovery) and his cadre of ladder wielding circus freaks. It smacks of padding, but at least it’s lively and fun padding as the wild finale weaves in an exploding porn magazine (!) and a woman’s bare breasts shooting neon energy beams (?!), before our lusty friend Ah Chee muses that kung fu and ninjitsu are simply no match for the power of boobs. “Ooh shaka-ninja!”
In the nineties, he directed Jet Li in films like The Legend, The Defender and The Enforcer, which led to work as action choreographer on many of Li's Hollywood films, including The One, Kiss of the Dragon and Cradle 2 the Grave. Most recently, Yuen directed the Luc Besson-produced action hit The Transporter.