Among the most widely available Shaw Brothers movies back in the days of grainy VHS, Five Element Ninjas (also known as Chinese Super Ninjas) was once a firm favourite for old school fans of grindhouse chopsocky fare but in recent years has proven more divisive. Back in the early Eighties the Shaw Brothers were going through a rough patch with slicker, more contemporary productions from rival studios stealing their box office thunder. Hence the studio's chief action auteur, Chang Cheh, set out to put pack theatres with an attack plan of action, action and more action.
Beard-stroking martial arts master Ying Chung and his students, including cocky young buck Xiao Tian Hao (Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi), fend off a challenge from rival Chief Hong (Chan Shen) who then introduces his Japanese ally. The samurai slays one student but is bested by bare-knuckle hero Liang Zhi Sheng (Lo Meng). Disgraced, the swordsman commits suicide but not before warning his Ninja clan will take revenge. Sure enough, ninja master Kembuchi Mudo (Chan Wai-Man) has his Five Element ninja divisions: Gold, Fire, Earth, Water and Wood ambush and kill each of Ying's best students until only Tian Hao and Zhi Sheng are left. While Master Ying recuperates from a poison attack, nice guy Zhi Sheng brings home Ah Shun (Chen Pei-Hsi), a sweet young maid whose uncle tried to force her into prostitution. Xiao Tian Hao inexplicably takes against the girl and goes out of his way to belittle, annoy and bring her to tears. But wouldn't you know, the misogynist's suspicions prove right. In time Ah Shun reveals she is really Junko, a seductive ninja spy in sexy fishnet tights and a miniskirt - ninja attire that is one-hundred percent historically accurate. Don't let anyone tell you different! A surprise ninja attack sees Zhi Sheng and Master Ying dead, their temple in flames and Tian Hao on the run in search of someone to help him take revenge.
Cherished by some fans as an unpretentious action epic, derided by others as yelping chopsocky nonsense, Five Element Ninjas is too entertaining to be a "bad" movie per se but so steadfastly macho it comes across rather camp. Chang Cheh was entirely sincere in his admiration for a very stoic, very male set of chivalric values. Consequently his films leave no room for irony, subversion or wit which means many have not dated as well as those of less famous contemporaries like Chu Yuan, Sun Chung or Lu Chin Ku. Compare the comic book anti-Japanese sentiment here with the more nuanced, sophisticated and positive message espoused in Heroes of the East (1979), another Shaw Brothers film directed by Chang's one-time martial arts choreographer Lau Kar-Leung, a far more progressive filmmaker. There conflict arises through cultural misunderstanding while martial arts provide the path towards mutual respect. By contrast in Five Element Ninjas the Chinese heroes remain befuddled by the kamikaze attitude of the Japanese who come across like ruthless, inscrutable robots. Chang draws the art of Ninjitsu, with all its sneaky trickery, as the embodiment of Nipponese evil. At a time when every other Shaw Brothers movie had feisty, faceted kick ass heroines, Chang typically serves up a lone female character who vacillates from sobbing doormat to treacherous vamp. Strangely, Chang establishes Junko as an interestingly conflicted character, forced to betray men she actually likes and hopelessly enamoured with smirking prankster Tian Hiao, but swiftly loses interest as the hero exhibits zero interest in her plight.
Still, one can't despise a hamburger for not being a steak dinner. Choreographed by star Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi the action sequences are undeniably energetic and exhilarating. They are also very gory although sub-standard special effects render scenes where a ninja in chains is pulled apart and one character fights on with his intestines spilling out less impressive than they sound. Chang tailored Five Element Ninjas as a showcase for the remarkably agile Tien-Chi. At age six the Taiwanese born actor joined the famous Peking Opera School where he spent twelve years. He worked on several films with Chang Cheh, notably surreal quasi-Christ parable The Weird Man (1983) and the all-star favourite Shanghai 13 (1985), but despite good looks and athletic prowess never graduated to the big leagues of stardom. Possibly because his screen persona while meant to be charmingly irreverent came across as bratty and annoying. After Shaw Brothers shut down Tien-Chi stuck by Chang through his run of indie horror films, e.g. Attack of the Joyful Goddess (1983) and Nine Demons (1984). He was last seen battling vampires in 5 Venoms vs. Wu Tang (1986). As for his character, well you know what they say. No sooner does one martial arts master die then another one happens along. Upon studying the secrets of Ninjitsu - which the film hastens to remind the audience was originally an ancient Chinese martial art, in a "fuck you Japan" kind of way - Xiao Tian Hao teams up with four colourless sidekicks to battle through gold, fire, wood, water and earth ninjas in labored video-game fashion. Ho and indeed hum. For the record, the definitive Hong Kong ninja movies are Duel to the Death (1982) (probably the greatest ninja movie ever made) and Ninja in the Dragon's Den (1982). Both boast superior action sequences and far more ambitious plots although the pulpy Ninja Hunter (1984) is great fun too.