It’s once again time to take another flamboyant trip to ancient Hong Kong to witness bursts of athletic violence interspersed with an over complicated plot thanks to your friends at the insanely prolific Shaw Brothers Studio! Made in 1982 by Chang Cheh, the man responsible for SB’s series of Venom Mob movies, Five Element Ninjas is a film utterly loaded with blatantly ludicrous martial arts fighting styles and outlandish gore but is told in such a stern faced, stoic way it feels like Tommy Lee Jones is trying to tell you a knock knock joke at a funeral.
It’s a noticable shift in tone from the usual, slightly classier tone that the revered studio is known for, but at this point in their history, what with it being the garish 80’s and with rising competition from rival studio Golden Harvest (a company that arguably understood how to change with the times better), it decidedly feels like the people in charge are scrabbling to remain relevant in a market that was about to change irrevocably with 1985’s Police Story.
Regardless to say, Shaw Brothers’ panic ends up being our gain as Five Elements Ninjas is an entertainingly unhinged exercise in the tremedously kitch while still dealing out classic Shaw Brothers values like a bewildering overabundance of plot and high flying martial arts.
It’s ancient China and two martial arts school have desided to have a tournament to see which house has the superior kung-fu. One school is good and the other is a bit shifty – you can tell who the good guys are because they’re dressed like they’re in an Asian Commodores tribute band – but nevertheless the good guys almost pull a clean sweep in this largely honorable competition however, the bad guys pull a last minute transfer worthy of the premier league when they bring in a Japanese fighter trained in the art of the samurai who gains a technical victory and then goads his opponent to take his own life to salvage his honor. Not waiting to see what the judges view is on ritualistic suicide, the samurai then goes on to lose his next bout and has to commit seppuku himself, which he bizarrely commits with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of splatter.
However, things aren’t over yet, not by a fucking long shot as the ninja clan the samurai belongs to takes issue over this and vows to wipe the victorious, heroic martial school off the face of the earth with their five elemental styles of gold, wood, water, fire and earth. Thinking that offence is a good defence, the school sends the best that Chinese kung fu can offer into the ninja’s individually themed elemental territory only to be cut to ribbons when their noble fighting style proves to be no match for the brutal sneak attacks and trickery of the ninja who proves once and for all that it’s better to work smart than to work hard…
Soon all that is left is for the ninja clan, their Samurai boss and their undercover female assassin to accomplish is the destruction of the school itself and the slaughter of it’s old master but immature student Hao manages to escape and plots a suitable revenge as he himself learns the art of ninjitsu which he intends to use to nullify the skills of the Five-Elements Ninja.
There seems to be a concerted effort here to take the usual values and themes of usual Shaw Brothers fare, and then turbo charge them in the attempt to cater to an 80’s audience, most noticably in the needlessly intricate plot and the ramping up of suprising but hugely entertaining bursts of primitive gore that sprays that weird crayon coloured blood that you’d see in Hammer horror movies all over the place; but for the most part it works. The first and last third of the movie are stuffed with fast paced fights, eccentric weapons and completely bizarre fighting tactics that excite and amuse in a way that must have gone over huge in grindhouse fleapits in america at the time. This is due to the refreshing lack of anything even remotely approaching realism when it comes to the cartoonish stalk and slash antics of the titular Five Element Ninja who prove that the only thing more brutal than their killing method is their abysmal dress sense as the Gold Clan leap around in sparkly outfits designed to dazzle their foes with the hideousness of their 24 carat fashion disaster. If the thought of ninjas sparkling like Robert Patterson’s Twilight character on a sunny June day isn’t enough for you to comically rub your eyes in disbelief, wait till you get a load of the Wood Clan disguising themselves as the trees from The Wizard Of Oz in order to stealthily snare their prey or virtually everything the Water Clan does as they fly out of the water with all the grace of a dead manatee strapped to a helicopter.
If one thing benefits weird 80’s kung fu, it’s clumsy gore and Five Elements Ninja has this in abundance with oddly staged acts of splatter both triggering the funny bone and being conceptually disturbing: take for example the luckless fucker who falls foul of the Earth Clan as they repeatedly stab up the poor bastard’s trouser legs with hooked spears from under the ground while he flails around helplessly as ragged strips of flesh (which worryingly could very well be his balls) hang out of his turn ups – another guy is straight up quartered, another is torn in half, Day Of The Dead style and yet another is pinned to a burning door with arrows and all are presented in the lush colours that the studio was known for.
Another bizarre aspect of the film which accidently works in it’s favour is the epic sized cast who are all named and all have completely separate fighting skill but most of whom are actually weird red herrings and get mercilessly butchered usually one or two scenes later. The fact that such detail is made to make these martial artists stand out when in fact they have the average life expectancy of a horny teen in a slasher film succeeds in making the whole enterprise seem completely unpredictable where literally no one is safe. Oddly enough it’s only when the film finally slows down to catch it’s breath and actually give you stuff like plot and character development is when it actually starts to drag as the sub-plot between Hao and the scantily clad Japanese assassin keeps the film ticking along but it’s lead character, despite boasting mad murder skills, boasts a childish lack of empathy that borders on sociopathic and you only want him to to succeed because the Ninja Clan are such smug assholes.
Far from perfect, yet perfectly strange, Five Elements Ninja may not have the poise and nobility that past Shaw Brothers productions may boast but in it’s own violent disjointed way it ends up being a riotous bout of smash mouth kung foolery that endlessly entertains with it’s dubious talents while firmly putting the “mental” in elemental.