Chang Cheh is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. That so few people in the West know how important he is to film is seriously unjust. His martial masterworks revolutionized Asian action/adventure cinema, which in turn changed the way action was shot everywhere else.
Interestingly, Chang found his way to film via the same current that swept the French New Wave to the forefront of world cinema – film criticism. Eventually, he began selling screenplays – his first, The False-Faced Woman, was produced in 1947. Chang made his solo directorial debut ten years later – but it would be another decade before he would change the face of homegrown Hong Kong cinema.
In 1965, director Robert Wise brought his production of The Sand Pebbles to Hong Kong. Many of the island’s most revered filmmakers recall how watching that production unfold helped Hong Kong’s film industry turn an important corner.
At the time, motion picture martial arts were performed in a style akin to Peking/Bejing Opera, or Jingju – with very little exception. Jingju is Performance Art of a sort – meant to celebrate the brave/romantic/tragic deeds of legendary Chinese cultural heroes, and the works are structured in such a way that movement is just as important as voice. The physicality in Jingju is rigorously choreographed; a great deal of it informs character (in a fashion not dissimilar to Japanese Noh theatrical tradition), and at times it all becomes very complex. The Jingju audience understands and respects the notion that the performers don’t merely sing – they must also consider every mannerism and replicate every gesture (some of which plays out as very elaborate, pantomimed combat) as it was originally conceived – thus the stardom of those actors who could execute these maneuvers with perfect timing and unwavering skill. Because of the enduring popularity of the form, filmmakers were compelled to create combat that had a conceptual antecedent in the theatre.
Watching the Yank stuntmen in Wise’s employ perform realistic reactions to fights inspired some Hong Kong filmmakers to abandon the rote reactions to the ritualized combat audiences had seen before and make a play for something a little more visceral. The question became: What if the elaborate, choreographed combat of the Chinese Opera was performed in such a way that it looked less like dance and more like it hurt like a sanofabitch?
Chuan “King” Hu answered that question with the thrilling Come Drink With Me (released some time ago by the Weinstein Group’s is-it-dead-or-not Dragon Dynasty Buffet in a special edition, which – despite botched subtitles – comes recommended for its wondrous anamorphic transfer and an endlessly charming and informative commentary featuring its star, the adorable Cheng Pei Pei. Go hit Amazon and pick that up now) – but Chang Cheh would violently stomp (and slash…and gouge) one step beyond Hu’s accomplished production with his brutal and balletic One Armed Swordsman – which launched the career of Wang Yu (and what a career it was – lawsuits, rumored Triad involvement, wife-beating, affairs – and a nifty early ‘80s murder charge! Slebs – They’re just like us!) – and set island box office registers ringing to the tune of $1,000,000.
I’m not bright enough to approach this in a scientific way – but let’s try out the math:
In 1967, the Hong Kong dollar was worth roughly one-fifth of the American dollar.
In 1967, the average movie ticket price in the US was $1.25. So it’s logical to assume that HK ticket prices were somewhere in the area of $.25 to $.30 – though it has been said that the industry’s boom in this period led to an increase in ticket prices. Let’s be really liberal and say they were $.50 a pop. That’s two million admissions.
In 1967…there were just shy of four million people living in Hong Kong.
Chang’s film was a revolution unto itself in the way it portrayed martial arts – and the resultant violence – onscreen. While no less – and in some ways, far more – melodramatic than the films before it, it featured fight choreography by Liu Chai-Liang (aka Lar Kar Leung – who worked on the original Kwan Tak-Hing Wong Fei Hung films in the fifties…then became choreographer supreme at Shaw’s…and finally a director in his own right – bringing us The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, among others. In 1994, he served as the director and fight coordinator on the final word on Jackie Chan’s career – Drunken Master II), and realistically-depicted violence that deepened audiences’ connection to the material. Chang’s picture felt truer and more alive to HK filmgoers than anything that had come before.
One of the fascinating things about Chang’s output is how the films can veer tonally from grave morality plays…to garish – and, of course, heroic – bloodshed…..to quirky comedy…to gross-out horror…to melodramatic tragedy. King Hu (whose aforementioned Come Drink With Me Chang sequelized with Golden Swallow aka The Girl With the Thunderbolt Kick) and Lo Lieh made films that are very staid by comparison – films that seem to exist in a world not unlike our own. Chang could – and did – execute this sort of costume drama (Water Margin, his Kurosawa-inspired epic, certainly qualifies) – but he also made films filled with pratfalls and gore and ghosts and vampires and – well, craziness.
One of his last films is one of his finest – and sadly – one of his most misunderstood.
I used to engage in an utterly insane practice for years during my every grade school summer vacation. One of the local rental places ran the ol’ “5 Movies/5 Days/5 Dollars” deal…and I had all summer…and it’s 308 degrees out with 107% humidity – so I’d rent every film in every section in alphabetical order, five at a time. It was in one such Nickelodeon Video blitz that I discovered one of those classic old-school oversized VHS cases…cast in white…with a white-clad guy leaping through the air…and emblazoned with the hysterical – yet evocative – title…Superninjas. That box leapt off the shelf into my hands and said, “Take me home, little boy – you…will…love me!” And you know what – I did love it. And chances are – so did you.
Because when you were a kid…and you saw those early afternoon/wee hours o’ the morn UHF/cable superstation broadcasts of chop-socky awesome – a few of ‘em stuck in your head because they were like nothing you’d seen. One of them had a bunch of guys in weird lizard masks…one of them had a guy leaping, rolling, and scratching himself like a monkey…one of them had a guy peeing on miniature white-faced ghost monks…..and one of them was Superninjas.
And so, years later, you’re having a conversation with someone about film…and it turns to martial arts…and you say, “I’ve never been a big fan of kung-fu movies…but I saw this one…when I was a kid…and there were these guys in lizard masks…
Or, “…and this guy – I think it might have been Jackie Chan – peed on these weird little ghosts…”
Or – and this is the best one – “…and this guy was fighting these ninja guys – and he gets stabbed sixty times, but he keeps fighting. And then he finally dies when he SLIPS ON HIS OWN GUTS!”
If you relate that last one to me…you’ve given the secret handshake that grants you entrance into the cult of Superninjas.
Superninjas is a film that trades on the long-standing Chinese/Japanese hate-on (ever see Fist of Fury? How about Fist of Legend?). It begins with a scholarly explanation of intent; the film is an examination of Japanese martial arts – specifically Ninjitsu, citing literary research in an attempt to properly portray the skills and weapons.
While still contending with the opening titles, we’re dropped into the midst of a conflict between – what else – rival martial arts schools. One of the schools – instructed by Yuan Zeng – is a noble house dedicated to justice, while the other – run by a sniveling douche named Chief Hong – is willing to cheat its way to victory, going so low as to employ a Japanese to fight their battles.
The ronin enters the fracas, disarms an axe-wielding Alliance member (whose whiny dubjob is a comic highlight), and tauntingly informs him that, “Loss of a fight means loss of a life for a Samurai.” Axe Guy decides in that moment that the Samurai might just be on to something – so he SLITS HIS OWN THROAT WITH HIS OWN GIGANTIC AXE – which freaks out the Alliance, and forces Five Deadly Venom‘s star Lo Mang into combat. Lo Mang is so supernatually hard-assed that, when he’s staring down an an opponent armed with a katana, he says he’ll “use his fists against…any weapon.”
Lo, because he is a righteous Chinese, handily bests the Samurai.
One of the Alliance brothers, Chen Tin Hiou (played by Shao Tien – aka Cheng Tien Chi – a smirky, snarky asswipe from the Yuen Biao mold, who is credited in the film’s trailer as a discovery of Chang’s) pipes up with, “Loss of a fight means loss of a life for a Samurai.” And, lo (Mang) and behold, the Samurai does indeed commit Seppuku – but not before imparting instructions to Chief Hong. “Call on my friend Cheng Yun (which, if I’m not mistaken is an exceedingly Chinese name, isn’t it?) the Ninja – he will come.” Then he presents a parting gift to Chief Yuan – a small ring he claims is “a memento from my good friend Cheng Yun the ninja.” He throws the spiked ring across the room to Yuan, who plucks it out of the air – piercing his palm on the ring’s claw-like barbs.
Some time later, Yuan Zeng calls a meeting to tell his pupils that he has received a challenge from Cheng Yun himself. The best members of the clan must fight Cheng’s Five Elements Ninjas. Impetuous Chen makes a move to read the letter, but his master stops him abruptly. “Don’t touch it, it may contain poison!” His students dub gasps of horror as their chief tells them that he “was careless before…when catching this ring…from the Japanese…my palm was bruised. I didn’t mind it – but I was poisoned by it. I must cleanse the poison from my body. I cannot practice kung-fu for about three months.”
It’s pretty nice that the Alliance has such an easygoing chief. His palm was bruised, and he didn’t even mind it. The film is rife with demented dubwork that will creep its way into your casual conversations once you’ve seen it. The Chief goes on to tell his boys that he has doubts regarding the combat they face.
“This damn challenge…it could be a trap. It could be for real. But it could also be…a straagee.”
That’s right – a “straagee.”
Chen skims the challenge note. “The Five Elements?” he asks, “What does it say about that?” The Chief explains that, much like the fe-creatures of Sex and the City, the ninja derive their strength and style from the five elements – gold, earth, fire, water, and wood.
One of the pupils asks his chief what a ninja is. “I’m not familiar,” he replies. Thanks, chieftain. Good lookin’ out.
Despite not knowing what the hell they’re dealing with, the Chief concocts a straagee to deal with this “damn challenge.” The plan basically amounts to sending the best fighters in the Alliance to five different locations so that they can be ripped apart two at a time, leaving no one of any real skill behind to fend off an attack at the school. And okay – that’s not an entirely accurate depiction of the events, but it’s not a great plan at all – and it plays right into Cheng Yun the Ninja’s deadly trap.
Once divided, the groups make for the challenge locations – and discover Ninjas so damned cool that they give Sho Kosugi a run for his money.
Each of the elementally-coded teams employs gimmicked weaponry based on the nature of their color-coded element. Gold team is decked out in stylish lame and chromed out “coolie” hats which – when they take them off and twirl them about – thwart their opponents with a blinding golden glare. Then the hats shoot daggers. How badly do you want that hat?
Our next group is sent to a river and baited onto a bridge. At first glance, it appears that the area is deserted.
“Some water element, huh?” one fighter asks another.
“Yeah,” his companion replies, “they’re really chickenshit.”
But the Water Ninjas are dangerously close. Utilizing hollow reeds to breathe underwater (which the 8-bit Nintendo game Ninja Gaiden II informs us was called “The Art of Breathing Through Tubes” – thanks, Tecmo – I had no idea there was any artistry to it) in order to sneak up on the hapless Chinese, the blue-clad aquatic antagonists hook the heroes’ legs and drag them into the water with fishing nets – then stab the shit out of them with spears until the river runs Giallo red.
The next group of Yuan Clan fighters creeps nervously about a studio-bound forest…until they are set upon and ruthlessly butchered by Wood Element Ninjas disguised as trees.
I’ll give that a moment to sink in. Ninjas. Disguised. As Trees.
You simply have not experienced everything cinema has to offer until you see a tree branch throw a brace of shuriken so sharp that the man struck by them doesn’t even know that he was hit…haven’t lived until tree limbs with climbing claws lash out and attack…if you didn’t see this movie when you were twelve – that’s okay. Superninjas will magically transport you.
From there, we’re forced to helplessly watch as the honorable men of the Yuan are thwarted by the red-masked Fire Element fighters, who employ red smoke, flashbombs, and even boobies to confuse their opponents.
Finally, Cheng Yun himself rises to decimate our last group of fighters when they combat the Earth Element Ninjas. Earth Ninjas have the power to burrow into the ground and employ long spears to stab at their opponents…or burst through the dirt and surprise their opponents with deadly attacks. It is here, as he fights against the overwhelming forces of the evil Dirt Ninjas, that a fighter is stabbed with a spear that breaks through the ground, stabs up between his legs, and disembowels him. He then struggles against Cheng Yun for another three minutes of the film’s run-runtime. Yet it is not the sinister subterfuge of the Japanese that fells this heroic warrior – instead, as he prepares to charge Cheng Yun for one last desperate offensive, he steps on his dangling intestine and slips – giving his enemies the opportunity to finish him.
Once dispatched, the malevolent Cheng Yun stands over the fallen fighter’s form, stares right into the camera, and sneers, “Goodbye, hero!”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chief Yuan’s remaining pupils fortify their stronghold against potential attack. During the preparations, Lo Mang sees a young moon-faced girl being bullied in the street. He takes pity on the poor creature, sends her torturers scurrying, and offers her shelter within the fortress. Chen Tin Hiou balks at this idea, assuming that the girl – whom he refers to as “Nuisance” – will only be more trouble in the midst of the conflict. Not only is the misogyny Chen directs at this character a hilarious highlight of the film – it’s also shrewdly prescient.
Eventually, Cheng Yun’s ninja horde attacks the Yuan stronghold in sinister silence (there is literally no soundtrack whatsoever as they move), the clan is entirely decimated, and their stronghold burned.
Chen escapes immolation, and crosses paths with an elderly man who knows a bit about the deadly art of ninjitsu. A plan for insanely, hilariously bloody revenge is hatched, as Chen gets a crash-course montage in ninja arts. Finally, he and a couple of his new master’s pupils send a challenge note of their own, and they lash out against the Nipponese Ninja Nightmare. The film, like so many martial arts films of its time and any other, ends both gorily and abruptly – it’s always seemed to me as though Quentin Tarantino ended his Death Proof the way he did as a very specific homage to this film.
For about forever, the film has been seen as one of Chang Cheh’s lesser works – a weak, low budget, out-of-touch Shaw Brothers programmer. Perceived as shoddily shot, and mounted on painted-sky Shaw studio interior-exteriors that have never looked phonier, Superninjas has a reputation as one of the more ludicrous works of a filmmaker past his prime – a “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of experience. A recent restoration ( from Celestial Pictures, who have, over the last few years, begun restoration work on hundreds of films from the venerated studio) under the film’s original Five Elements Ninjas title – proves this assessment false.
In the severely cropped English dub – which has been the only way to see the film for the better part of twenty-five years – the scholarly explanation of martial arts history that begins the film is risible at best. In the original Chinese, however, specific books and authors are mentioned, and the presentation becomes a touchstone throughout the film. As new weapons and attacks are introduced, a name or description of the weapon or tactic appears on the screen – which, when doubled in size via the magic of Shawscope, reveals a real energy and imagination with regard to the fight sequences. What once felt mechanical is invigorated and invigorating when presented in the original aspect ratio.
The restoration is revelatory in terms of Chang’s use of light and color, as well. The once drab backgrounds and artificial exteriors are revealed to be more vibrant than they’ve ever appeared to be in any Shaw Brothers production prior. Far from looking run-down, they seem to have been repainted to convey a heretofore unseen element of the production – Chang’s desire to replicate the feel of Chinese comic-book imagery.
If you’ve ever seen a Chinese comic, you find yourself stunned when the manga-styled black and white imagery gives way – with the turn of a page – to an amazingly vibrant and detailed painting of some crucial event in the tale. It feels almost like magic when you discover it for the first time – and that same feeling informs Chang’s film. Cheh was no stranger to stylized production design or lighting – he would often use colored light to draw the eye to an important piece of visual information, and he seemed to delight in coding – and coating – the villainy of his films in skulls and spikes and monster masks, but these were never much more than inspired stylistic flourishes. With Five Element Ninjas, these…elements take hold like never before. A once graying painted sunset backdrop is revealed to be an impossibly gorgeous, evocative canopy not at all dissimilar to the storybook sky created for the first meeting of Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride. With Five Element Ninjas, Chang Cheh didn’t endeavor to crank out a shitty period martial arts action on the cheap – he meant to take us on a vivid and operatic four-color adventure. Viewed through this prism, the picture becomes a culmination – and celebration – of his very best instincts as a filmmaker.
When I said that Chang changed the way everything in action cinema was shot, I wasn’t exaggerating. One of Chang’s assistant directors – John Woo – went on to a minor career in the Hong Kong film industry. Though he was very obviously influenced by Melville and Scorsese and Hitchcock and Peckinpah – his time with Chang gave him a strong sense of how to manipulate an audience with bold tales of brotherhood. One of Woo’s earliest martial actioners, Last Hurrah for Chivalry – with its color coded characters and bold palate – feels almost as if it were directed by Chang.
Obviously, Woo’s moves were aped with success in Hollywood – and everywhere else – proving that techniques pioneered by Chang Cheh were of value all over the world.
Shaw Brothers uncontested run as the premiere Asian film group was ended in the early 80’s by Seasonal Films and Golden Harvest. By 1987, the company had ceased film production altogether, having gained major traction with TVB – the television production arm Sir Run Run had…run run since 1967. Chang Cheh directed few films of note after this, as advancing age and ailing health was getting the better of him. Disciples of Shaolin (1983 – a remake of his own 1975 effort), Across the River (1988), and Hidden Hero (1990) and are among the few worthwhile productions in the last decade of his career. His final film was 1993’s Ninja in Ancient China – which, oddly enough, references Five Element Ninjas a bit. He passed away in 2002.
For more fantastic Chang Cheh films, check out House of Traps, Life Gamble, Flag of Iron, Trail of the Broken Blade, Kid with the Golden Arm, Chinatown Kid, Dynasty of Blood, All Men are Brothers – and, of course, the classic films One Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms.
Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock released Celestial Pictures gorgeous 2.35:1 anamorphic re-master of Superninjas in the States under it’s original Five Elements Ninjas moniker last year.