A delightfully zany Run Run Shaw picture, filmed in Shawscope, and produced in 1982.
Obviously, there are spoilers ahead.
Usually these sorts of films have some kind of McGuffin involving "Clan A" vs "Clan B" - in a sort of Hatfield and McCoy kind of family feud. One of Bruce Lee's more famous films had him returning from some kind of school to find his master poisoned and some Japanese martial arts school responsible, leading to him taking on their entire clan in a hail of fists and spraying blood. Apparently if you're not the best, killing your enemy school's leader by some kind of subterfuge is in order.
Kung fu ruled the 1970s. Bruce Lee aimed a kick and held it at shoulder length, pivoting it to face a man interrupting his training in Enter the Dragon. But by the time the 1970s were over a lot of people raced to kung fu schools to become invincible blocks on walking iron to find a cultural dance class with people specializing in rather flashy looking but ridiculous moves, "rainbow flying butt monkey fist" or Drunken Leopard style. Some who followed Bruce Lee's nunchaku moves found they belonged to the Japanese arts. Jiu jitsu was big in the 1940s and had yet to come to resugence in the 1990s MMA circuit - but a lot of people who went to those classes saw that the first year was leaning how to slam yourself hard into the floor and said "screw this, where's the cool thrashing bozos moves?"
Enter the Ninja.
Suddenly the zeitgeist was about being these cool guys in black who you couldn't hit because they had devious tricks and devastating, pull no punches moves. A single ninja could take out 5,000 guys man. Don't mess with them.
Well, when you've staked your claim in Kung Fu movies and suddenly everyone wants Ninja movies, what do you do? Make a Ninja movie. Sort of.
We start with the usual Chinese Kung Fu movie McGuffin. Chief Hong challenges Yuan Zeng for the title of "Martial Arts Master". This involves 10 duels, a student of Hong's school vs a student of Zeng's school. Zeng's people, resplendent in their white "Star Trek meets Superman" white disco threads, easily defeat the Hong people. Intriguingly, once the Zeng clan won six consecutive fights, you'd think they'd have won the whole thing, given it's best of 10. But Zeng and Hong square up for the final fight, only to find that Hong wants a stand-in, so he sends in a samurai from Japan. You know, because bringing in a ringer from a completely different country and fighting style will demonstrate the superiority of his kung fu even though absolutely no other witnesses are around, it's the word of one group versus another, and so forth. If you are an aficionado of pro wrestling you understand that the rule book is always secondary to plot device, so game on. Zeng's student decides to stand in for Zeng, and loses his weapon and therefore the match. Up to now, the matches have been decided that way and no delimbing or killing have taken place. But the samurai states that to lose a fight is to lose one's life, and the student "mans up" and kills himself with his own axe. Another student demands a rematch, and, okay, fair enough - even though the Hong clan won a single match - sure, why not. The samurai is disarmed and realizing that he has to play by his own rules, commits seppuku, and throws a poisoned ring at Zeng, saying that ninjas will come to avenge his death.
Because, of course, the samurai classes, who lived by a code of bushido, would be totally in league with a group of backstabbing spies and rogues - by the same logic that all Canadians know each other, right?
Anyway, a challenge letter hits the Zeng desk later. Zeng is incapacitated by the poison and is on injured reserve for three months. So he sends ten of his best twelve men out to the five locations specified, each for a given element (gold, earth, fire, wood, water).
The first battle to be shown is the gold element. Some EXCEEDINGLY camp ninjas come out dressed head to foot in incredibly shiny gold lamé foil clothes, wearing coolie hats made of highly polished gold toned metal. Never mind the idea that ninjas strike from the shadows wearing all black, these guys hit the stage looking like extras from Studio 54. When they twirl their coolie hats (transformed into parasols) it blinds the two Zeng fighters, and by the time the ninjas deploy shooting daggers from their umbrellas, it's over for clan Zeng. But you know 1982 and all that, and Hong Kong still hadn't gotten over its Saturday Night Fever.
Next up is wood. The two men head out into the worst looking fake forest ever. They lean a bit too close to a tree that couldn't more obviously be a guy in a tree costume (looking like a cross between something out of H.R. Pufenstuf and the sorting hat from Harry Potter). Naturally, the "limbs" of the trees contain arms, containing claws, a brass knuckle ring, etc. Our two heroes never stand a chance against the five trees, especially when ninjas in earth tones jump out of them and start slashing with tiger claw palms.
The water ninjas ambush the two stupidest men to date. They arrive at a giant pond bisected by a tiny land bridge. They decide, hey, let's stand two abreast on a tiny patch of soil wide enough for one man to walk across, and relax our guard. The blue ninjas in the water quietly glide up breathing through straws and dispatch the two idiots. Ninjas 6, Zeng clan 0.
The fire ninjas, all in red (which is great camouflage in a green forest) deploy red smoke flares, blinding the two Zeng guys who show up to check them out. Some cute flame tricks and some artful stabbings, and it's clear these ninjas are running the table.
The last two victims, hapless as a horny couple in a Friday the 13th franchise - walk into a field when suddenly spikes come up through the earth and stab them in the legs. Men burst out of the earth and disappear back into it, stabbing as they go. Ninjas 10, Zeng 0.
Meanwhile, back at the
ranch Hong school, Hong is overjoyed at the head Ninja, who happens to be dressed like a samurai, but I mean, hey - the opening disclaimer says that the costuming is based on AUTHENTIC JAPANESE DOCUMENTS and has been METICULOUSLY RESEARCHED. (A similar claim to "made WITH 100% ground beef"). The very Japanese-named Japanese ninja, "Cheng Yun Mudou", (huh?) gets the praises and accolades of Hong for having killed all the red shirts. But while the red shirts were out getting killed entertainingly for our pleasure, the Zeng school went ahead and armored up the place, leaving its best two guys back at home base to keep watch.
Cue the woman. In a move that in no way is in any way suspicious, they have some random dude smack around an obviously non-Han Chinese Asian woman within eyeshot of our two gallant remaining heroes. They chase the man away far too easily, and for reasons that could only possibly involve advancing the plot, the "nice guy" of the two, Sheng, decides to take her in. What possible harm could it do to take in a woman obviously getting obviously beaten up outside the front gate, at a time when a ninja clan is looking to infiltrate the place?
Of course she's a ninja. She discreetly draws a map of the place and cases it thoroughly, using the pretense of cleaning their living spaces in gratitude to hide their weapons and so forth. Hao, the other man, is totally distrustful of her. When she brings a poisoned soup to Zeng, Hao insists on tasting it first, leading her to drop it on the floor and get another, unpoisoned bowl. For some reason the soup eats through the stone floor of the building, but doesn't injure either party by splashing them when it hits the floor. Nor does Hao recognize an obvious attempt to hide a poisoning attempt by suddenly becoming clumsy, and nobody notices that the soup has eaten a hole in the floor. I'd love to know what the bowl is made out of, perhaps they should consider lining the building with it.
Once she has all her recon she pulls out a mini-bow from her hat, attaches her map to an arrow and fires it over the wall to a waiting ninja who has apparently been sitting in a tree for the past two weeks waiting for the map.
Mudou decides to attack that night.
The ninja woman, Senji, offers her body to Sheng in thanks for his kindness. Sheng is a complete gentleman and gently refuses, saying the right and moral thing to do is make an honest woman of her and marry her after the ninja threat has passed. She says mournfully that he doesn't deserve a woman like her. Then, in a move that "nice guys" everywhere take to heart as evidence that "chicks dig jerks", she mortally stabs him. You see, her playing her flute was apparently a signal to attack, even though she's apparently been playing it for days.
The ninjas flood the place and it's bloodier than a man charging into a zombie horde holding a lawmower aloft. Hao and Sheng fight valiantly, and Sheng tells Hao to leave - he'll sacrifice himself to save Zeng. Meanwhile, Mudou blocks the door to Zeng's bedroom, then fires incendiary rockets in through a grille put over the window. As Zeng chokes on the smoke, Sheng tries valiantly to remove the hooks holding the door closed but dies in vain by being run through by Mudou's halberd. As does Zeng, who succumbs to the flames. Hao almost makes it out but is snared by Japanese chains, and just as they go to kill him Senji says no. Tie him up instead, she'll deal with him herself.
Turns out Hao has a trick up his sleeve. One day he'd decided to take a short cut through a guy's backyard and suddenly found himself tied up with trip-wire snares. The old man owning the place asks him what he's up to, and he apologizes for trespassing saying he needed to hurry to join his teacher. The master decides to show him the ninja skill of untying himself, just in case he's ever later on life tied up by ninjas (who are rampant in China, right?) and needs to know how to extricate himself. Chekov's skill shows up, and he unties himself just as Shenji comes in, sword in hand. She tells him she loves him, she's crazy about him - his complete indifference and hostility to her has won her heart. That sound you just heard, by the way, was feminism pounding its fists against the wall in fury as one of the worst misogynist tropes in existence gets hammered into the brains of a bunch of white chop-socky afficionado neckbeards.
He puts a dagger to her neck, and uses her as a human shield to get past the ninjas and escape. Mudou walks up, sees her wearing a "period-correct fishnet body stocking" (hey, it was the 1980s) and in-canon, nothing else (she was wearing a skin-toned bodysuit underneath, keeping things PG). He suddenly realizes that she was offering herself to Hao (and not that she was doing that to Sheng to lull them into dropping their guard). He says but for her help in infiltrating the place, they'd kill her, and as it is, she's sentenced to six months' hard labor for allowing Hao to live.
The "hard labor" consists of putting twigs on a fire, apparently, as Hong and Mudou celebrate their victory, him having put "Renowned in Martial Arts" over his desk. He asks Mudou when he's set to go back to Japan, when he reveals he doesn't want to go back to Japan. Hong is as confused as we are, because the xenophobic Japanese would have no real interest in abandoning the land of the Rising Sun to be ostentatiously "the best in martial arts" in Hong Kong. But Mudou has decided that his ninjas, because they blended into society and attacked from the shadows and nobody knew who they were as a general case - would best serve their spy nature by installing themselves as the most renowned martial artists in one of the busiest ports in the world. A few shuriken later and Hong dies, and so does everyone else in the Hong clan.
Meanwhile Hao has run back to the old man who taught him rudimentary ninja skill in an afternoon and asks to be taken in as a student. Not only does the old man agree immediately (?) and offer his other three students as free backup muscle (??) - he also gives him a rare key, an artifact of unknown purpose(???). Given that Hao is an excellent martial artist in his own right, he only has to teach him blindfighting in a week. This training consists of beating on him with a small rattan stick while he tries to defend himself just by sound - listening carefully to where the teacher is in space. Of course, the whole time he's narrating to Hao about how ninjas really came from China, China invented ninjutsu based on classic Chinese Taoism. That constant stream of Chinese propaganda allows Hao to do a much better job of figuring out where the teacher is, which translates to him being able to do that without the person talking, somehow.
Anyway, he turns up at the Hong ninja compound and throws down his own challenge letter. They don't kill him on the spot but allow him to leave, making a pretty futile attempt at killing him by making a "box" of swords he's able to casually jump through.
And we get to see what Chinese ninjas look like against the Japanese article. Strangely, their fighting style and weaponry resemble Shaolin and wushu as they use halberds to attack the gold disco C3P0 ninjas first. The gold men die relatively quickly because they rely purely on blinding their opponents, who can fight blind and therefore win easily.
They go up to the obviously guys in tree suits in the wood element location, and in no way fall for it. They use ripping chains with hooks to delimb the wood ninjas, walking away leaving a pile of corpses.
As for the water guys? A few stabs, and a beautiful move where they attach a net to their spears and "fish" the remaining ninjas into a pile of defenceless bodies, ripe for stabbing, and goodbye water ninjas.
The fire guys try their smoke tricks, but the Chinese ninjas attach flags to their polearms and that wafts away the smoke. Stab, stab, goodbye. Fire nation conquered.
The final scrum takes place in the wood element location. The Chinese split their spears in half, and then use them as stilts as small projections spring out the sides at the bottom. Can't stab someone who's not walking on the earth, and after a few impotent attempts at skewering (which are met by the stilt being stabbed back into the ground, releasing a spray of blood) they take to the open air to find themselves dispatched. Mudou himself enters the battle, and soon all three Chinese ninjas are attacking the Japanese (with a Chinese name).
At one point Mudou takes his belt off, which turns out to be a set of handcuffs, locking them around Hao's ankles. All looks lost because it's now an easy one on three, but Hao remembers the mystic key, which turns out to be a totally pedestrian skeleton key for ninja manacles with the most obvious keyhole on the planet, outlined in white.
But Mudou isn't playing fair - he has tiger claws attached to his feet and kicks his way into seriously wounding everyone. It looks like he's going to make it out of this alive when Hao decides to impale himself on Mudou's feet, holding him fast while the other guys stab him repeatedly with their spears. He tries sinking back into the ground, but Hao literally pulls the body in half, taking the legs and pelvis with him. The other ninjas ask him why he did that, and he answers with the only truly truthful answer to any of the questions raised by this film.
"I don't know."
The End. Filmed in Shawscope.