Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kant Miss Kung Fu Klassics: Five Element Ninjas (1982)

Title: Five Element Ninjas

Director: Chang Cheh


Five Element Ninjas is a fast paced and extremely entertaining Kung Fu film from famed Chinese director Chang Cheh. It is a film filled with revenge, betrayal, ninjas, and non stop kung fu action! It tells the tale of two Kung Fu schools who are battling to see who is the best of the two. Both schools bring their best martial artist to duel with each other, but only one will emerge as victorious, the best. The desire to be the best martial arts school in the land prompts one of the schools to cheat and so the end up relying on the aid of the notorious “Five Element Formation”, a group of ninjas that is segmented into five groups, each of the ninja groups attacks by using five elements which include: Fire, Water, Gold, Earth and Wood. Will the good guys have what it takes to go up against the Five Element Ninjas?

We're the good guys 'cause we're dressed in white!

Without a doubt, this one is one of my favorite Chang Cheh movies so far. It’s filled with some of the best Kung Fu fights you are going to see on any movie. These actors/martial artists are so skilled and have such speed! These guys are so good you will probably be tempted to hit that replay button to see some of the moves they pull off, I know I did! And the film has such a diverse use of weaponry! This is one of those films where each fight uses a different kind of weapon, each amusing in its own way. There’s giant axes, all sorts of different swords, poles, ninja stars, you name it, you’ll see it on this film. The first ten minutes of the film starts with a tournament between two schools, each school brings their best fighters forward against each other which makes for some really interesting fights. And all this awesomeness happens without the Ninjas even being introduced yet! By the way, one of the most enjoyable aspects for me on this one where the ninjas! You want to see the coolest ninjas on any film? Check this movie out! There’s a whole school of these guys! Stealthy, deadly and with a huge assortment of weapons! I love how a whole bunch of them will jump out of nowhere without making a single sound! These guys will whip out weapons you’ve never seen on any other movie before. So be on the look out for those.

The story though simple, grabs you. The good guys’ teacher is poisoned with a venom that will incapacitate him for three whole months. So he will not be able to use his Kung Fu skills to fight in the schools name, and so his pupils are forced to go up against the other school that is defying them. On their way to the duel a trap is set for them to battle against the Five Element Ninjas. The good guys are not familiar with the techniques used by the FiveE Element Ninjas, so it’s a total massacre, with the good guys getting some of their best fighters literally slaughtered! There is this one gruesome fight where the earth ninjas have knives popping out from the ground, injuring the good guys feet and legs. These knives rip the flesh off of the good guys legs, and he fights as chunks of flesh are hanging out of his legs! But he gives a good fight even though he is practically stepping on his own innards as he fights! Gruesome! Cringe inducing, and also very Chang Cheh! This director loved bloody action on his films! His heroes really suffer on his films.

Hey! Thats four against one! No fair!

Speaking of Chang Cheh as a director, this movie has a lot of elements that you can come to expect from a Chang Cheh/Kung Fu movie. Rivaling schools, Kung Fu fantasy elements, heroes who have to go and train in order to be able to face their enemy (this one being the most reoccurring of all) and finally, I noticed something that happens a lot in Chang Cheh movies: the female is the source of all evil. It’s something that he seems to do in many of his films, where the women are not to be trusted at all. They are always backstabbers somehow (sometimes even literally backstabbers! On this film a female ninja infiltrates the good guys school to get to know their secrets and plans, stirring the roosters nest as they say. Her intrusion into the school is one of the more interesting moments of the film, specially considering what happens because of it. I guess Chang Chech didn’t have the best relationships in the world and this somehow mirrored onto his movies? I don’t know, but the case is he does this a lot on his films! Even in The One Armed Swordsman a female is the one responsible for making the titular character loose an entire arm!

Never trust a female in a Chang Cheh film!

The film is not without its shortcomings though. This is one of the cheesiest of the Chang Cheh films I’ve seen. The Five Element Ninjas sometimes come off as funny, they each dress in the color of their element, the wood ones wear brown garments, the gold ones wear gold, the water ones wear blue and so forth. The wood ninjas were the silliest of all because the hid behind trees and tried to camouflage themselves as the tree, they looked kind of silly. The water ninjas were kind of funny too because all they did was swim around the water, I mean, couldn’t the good guys see them? I didn’t enjoy the use of reverse photography on some of the shots involving the water ninjas emerging from the water. But whatever, this is a Kung Fu fantasy, people float above water, ninjas travel through the earth, disappear, these guys appear to have all sorts of mystical powers, which of course is part of the charm of these movies! One other negative point for me is that to me, of all of Chang Cheh movies, this is the one where you can notice that the exteriors are all sets, with fake skies and clouds. I’ve never really loved this about these movies, but on this one is more evident. Still, the movie is so entertaining that I simply ignored this. Modern Kung Fu films do not suffer from this ailment thanks to the aid of CGI.

But anyhows, once the good guys train to overcome the Five Element Ninjas its payback time and we get treated to the last half of the film which is basically the good guys confronting the Five Element Ninjas yet again, only this time, they are ready for them! It is interesting to see them overcome the Five Elements. This is a great Kung Fu Fantasy and I recommend it as one of the most entertaining and fun ones I have seen to date.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Five Element Ninjas (Shaw Brothers)Five Element Ninjas


venoms5 said...

This is my fave Martial arts film of all time, Fran! I've seen it over two dozen times. Great stuff.

Prior to CC exploding onto the scene in 1967 with ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, women were the main stars and even performed roles tailored for men. He changed all that and that became one of his signatures. If women weren't evil, they often played helpless characters there only to be rescued. Sometimes, he did have a strong female role, though. I've written a lot about the man in a multipart article, Fran. It's not done yet, but there's five parts so far.

Interestingly, white is the color of death in China and I like how the opening of the movie, the main fighters of the Alliance are made up to be impressive warriors, yet next to the ninjas, they die pretty easily save for Lung Tien Sheng and Chao Kuo.

This one has long been called a kung fu movie, but technically, it's a hybrid of the Wuxia swordplay genre and the kung fu films. You may eventually want to check out some of those Wuxia movies, many of them based on novels. The storylines are often convoluted. They always deal with the Martial World with various clans battling for control, or the search for an all powerful weapon. Generally these movies have dozens of characters, are full of subterfuge and often times have fighters with superhuman powers, abilities and so forth.

Hey, if you wanna see a funny shot, freeze frame the last scene in 5EN when the warriors smash the Earth emblem. You'll notice Wang Li smashing Yu Tai Ping square in the back of the head. For years I wondered why he fell down so oddly.

Franco Macabro said...

I got a question Venom: what the hell does the word Wuxia mean? I've heard the term before referring to certain types of martial arts films, but have always wondered what it means and what it stands for.

venoms5 said...

It's a genre of popular literature that became a genre of wildly popular movies. The term refers to "Chivalrous Swordsmen", although there are swordswomen, too. The stories usually are incredibly voluminous in there expansiveness. The films usually are terribly condensed obviously and often are difficult to follow along if you're not already familiar with the source material.

Generally, any movie that deals with the martial world, battling clans, flying swordsmen, the search for mystical weapons, etc, is part of the Wuxia genre. Recent examples include CROUCHING TIGER, HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and other similar movies.

venoms5 said...

Some fans occasionally refer to all of them as 'kung fu movies', even though there's a difference. I like to refer to them as 'Romantic Swordsman' movies, especially many of the works of Chu Yuan. There's always some doomed, tragic, or hidden love story tucked away in their somewhere.

Still, it's not as jarring as referring to Japanese martial arts films as 'kung fu films'. That's like calling Football basketball. Both are entirely different animals.

Shaw's jump started a new kind of Wuxia actioner in the late 60's that was more realistic, putting less emphasis on the fantastic aspects and giving these often times spectacularly gruesome movies a Japanese flavor even down to importing Japanese directors and cinematographers.

These swordplay films (shot mostly outdoors) were far easier to follow along and things didn't get really extravagant till Chu Yuan reinvigorated the genre with the huge hit, KILLER CLANS in 1976. All of these were pretty much studio bound movies with the gorgeous sets giving the films a fairy tale quality. From there, it was an onslaught of similar movies trying to copy the "Shaw style" with all the meticulous sets.

Some of the best of these are

THE WEB OF DEATH (batshit crazy this one with a lot of wild effects)

In the early 80's the superpowers of the old, old Wuxia movies came back in vogue and can be seen in movies like


Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for the info Bri, I think according to what you've said that I've seen some Wuxia movies then! I saw LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY, the one directed by John Woo! Actually, I was surprised to discover that Woo was a director of martial arts films, I quite enjoyed that one.

I also saw The Magic Blade, but I didn't really focus on that one and disconnected from it for some reason.

Thanks for clearing up this difference between whats WUXIA and whats KUNG FU!


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