Ninja in the Deadly Trap
Hong Kong 1985
Directed by Philip Kwok.

Ti Lung is Qi Jiguang, the famous Ming Dynasty general in this historical drama turned ninja free-for-all.

During the Ming Dynasty, the coast of China was plagued by Japanese pirates. At first mainly harassing Korean coastal areas, by the beginning of the 16th century they had moved south and were becoming a serious threat to the stability of the coastal provinces. To combat this threat, General Qi Jiguang was ordered to "punish the bandits and guard peoples." He did just that, winning a decisive victories against the pirates in 1561 and again in 1563. Along the way he became one of the legendary heroes of China. There are shrines to Qi Jiguang along the coast which remain to this day.

In addition to being a brilliant strategist, Qi Jiguang was also a practitioner of the martial arts. He wrote numerous books on military strategy and training, and is said to have developed a Chinese swordfighting style to effectively combat the samurai swordsman skills of the Japanese. He emphasized physical training and study of the martial arts for all his soldiers to provide a good base for all skills required in the military.

You might think that the story of Qi Jiguang would be the perfect tale to bring to the big screen. It has everything -- a righteous, scholarly hero, evil Japanese pirates, and lots of fighting. But the story of Qi Jiguang had one fatal flaw -- no ninjas. And so, to rectify this gross oversight in the historical records, comes Ninja in the Deadly Trap, which adds to the tale of Qi Jiguang's subjugation of the pirates the one component that had before been so woefully absent.

General Qi Jiguang (Ti Lung), while conducting operations against the Japanese pirates, comes under attack by a group of highly skilled and strangely garbed assassins, who, when dispatched by his soldiers, seem to dissolve into pools of bubbly liquid. Of course, they are ninjas. The Japanese Defence Minister Toda has discovered that the General has a new book about the fighting arts, and wants to take it, killing the General in the process if at all possible. But as luck would have it, as luck would always have it in this type of movie, an old man known as "Master of the Three Arts" that lives "not to far from here" used to live in Japan and knows the way of the Ninja. General Qi sends his son to find the old man and his three disciples to help combat the mysterious ninjas and their menacing powers of self-liquification.

Junior Qi leads a band of men to find the Master of the Three Arts. En route, they are attacked by a group of ninjas and young Qi would have been slain were it not for the timely intervention of the man he seeks. They go off together happily while in the background, his men continue to be slaughtered by the ninja warriors. Somehow, I don't think our young hero will inspire the same confidence from his troops that his dad does. Just a thought.

While junior Qi is assembling the old man's disciples (each played by one of the Shaw Brothers action stars collectively known as Venoms: Lu Feng, Kuo Chui, and Chiang Sheng), back at General Qi's headquarters, ninjas are cleverly positioning themselves in the compond, as cooks, guards, and handmaids. When young Qi returns with the three masters, they must root out the ninja assassins before they commit the dirty deed. Luckily, it turns out to be not too much of a problem. These ninja are not exactly the most creative bunch of assassins I've seen. One masquerading as a cook puts a knife on a fish platter so he can whip it out while serving the food. This from the same group that can make themselves melt upon death? The old ninja knife-in-the-fish trick, works every time. Our heroes don't even need weapons to dispatch these wimps -- well, that's not entirely true -- one of the Venoms uses a sharp plate to kill his opponent.

The action really heats up when they go after Minister Toda in an all-out fight to the finish. They have to pass through several groups of specialized ninjas, and here the film takes a page from director Kuo Chui's mentor, Chang Cheh, and his earlier Ninja classic Super Ninjas ('82), featuring exotic ninja groups who wear bright gold reflective outfits and more. But in the end, we know Qi Jiguang must emerge victorious. It's a Ninja beat-down party, and everybody is invited.

There's a lot of silliness in this film, but it takes itself seriously and tells a good story. The Venoms put in good performances and as usual show off their amazing athletic abilities. Kuo Chui, who usually plays a central role in the Venom films, here takes a supporting role to Chiang Sheng, which gave him more time to work behind the camera -- and work he did, as Kuo Chui was not only the martial arts choreographer but the director as well, making this one of the few Venoms films not directed by Chang Cheh. And what a film! It seemed as though there was another ninja attack every five minutes. Not that that's a bad thing -- I never get tired of seeing groups of crafty ninja wearing bright shiny gold reflective costumes. The biggest suprise of the film, though, came when they actually removed said costumes, and worked in disguise, infiltrating the General's camp, and spying. Incredibly, Ninja in the Deadly Trap actually comes closer to depicting credible ninja activites than most any other ninja film I have seen.

On the other hand, Ti Lung was largely wasted in his role as the honored general, appearing only occasionally throughout the movie, without much to do but stand around and look dignified. Perhaps the writers could have brought out more of the myths surrounding Qi Jiguang, brought them to life. I'm thinking of one tale in particular which tells of a time when he marched his army across Fujian to fight against the pirates, and the people along the route rushed to his men to offer gifts. But, being well trained and righteous soldiers, they refused. So the people baked a special kind of cake with a hole in the middle, then made a necklace of grasses from which the cakes could hang, and attempted to give these to the soldiers, who still refused. But Qi Jiguang, seeing the practicality of such gifts, allowed them to be accepted, and as a result, today this kind of bread is a specialty of Fujian. Imagine now, the kind of havoc that a well placed specialty pastry could wreak on an unsuspecting ninja.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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