Hong Kong ,  1985
Directed by Corey Yuen.
Hiroyuki Sanada disguises himself as a Ninja to defeat his enemies, wading through fight choreography so thick you could dance through it. Shaka-ninja!
It really doesn't matter what this film is about, because it has the best introduction and opening credits sequence I have ever seen. It's like a ninja music video: the eighties pop music starts up, the ninjas start running around -- it looks a lot like what The Monkees TV show opening would look like if Peter Tork and the rest dressed like ninjas. And best of all, the theme song has english lyrics: and it's a rocking little tune about the ninja. Cue the synthesizers and the drum machine and sing along:
Along the coast no sign is heard,
Of a man who might!
move through the night without a word,
as if he wasn't there, and you can't be sure, that he wasn't there!
now listen to me children and I'll tell you of the legend of the Ninja,
they were men of the night
they moved in the night
and shared their lives
they were ready to fight (ooh shaka-ninja)
ready to kill,
they were ready to die,
ready to die -- ie, ahh -- (guitar solo)
It's beautiful. And I'm not kidding -- a background vocalist does really sing "ooh, shaka-ninja." Why isn't the soundtrack available in stores? And during this beautiful, deeply touching ninja dance song, the ninja are popping their heads out of the sand, running and flipping over walls, and then, at the most dramatic moment, take out big, vicious looking weapons, and the proceed to use them as shovels, flinging the dirt between their legs like dogs. This opening demands to be seen. After it, everything else is just cake.
But what cake it is! Turns out after those classic credits sits a pretty decent tale of friendship, revenge, and tons of kung-fu. Yuen Wu (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a ninja out for revenge -- only he isn't really a ninja, he just dresses like one. This causes no end of irritation to the real ninjas of the I-Ho clan, who attempt to track him down and kill him. I suppose because they all have to pay union dues and he doesn't. He just dresses in black and kills people and it just isn't fair! Yuen Wu travels to China to track down his next victim, an old man who goes by the name of Uncle Fok.
Uncle Fuk is like a father to young Master Ching (Conan Lee), who is a bit of a knockabout, always looking for a fight or to play a prank on someone. They are very close, but Uncle Fuk tells him nothing of his mysterious past. But in movies like this, its no stress on the audience's mental capacity to realize he was, of course, a ninja.
Master Ching meets Yuen Wu by chance in a restaurant that is being blessed by Master Leong, a Taoist priest. Ching exposes him as a charlatan just for the hell of it and trounces the Taoist sorely. Leong leaves, swearing that his father, the "Master of God Skill," will come for him and he better watch out. Ching laughs it off, and we see no more of the taoists until well after the movie should have ended.
Inevitably, with Yuen Wu attempting to kill Uncle Fuk, and Master Ching trying to protect him, they engage in battle after battle. But it seems both men are righteous, perhaps Yuen Wu has a good reason to kill Uncle Fuk? Uncle himself whips out the ninja black and mixes it up a bit with Yuen Wu, and the I-Ho ninja clan arrive and are arrayed against him as well. In the end, the two young heroes must unite to defeat a common enemy.
The fights are spectacular in this film. Director Corey Yuen creates elaborate set pieces and then puts the fighters through their paces on them. When Master Ching fights the Taoist Leong, the Taoist's altar consists of three tables stacked on top of one another. Needless to say the fight goes up, around, over, and under these before each is smashed to pieces. Early in the film Master Ching and his sidekick Fishy go to the Tin Hau festival, where stilt walkers are re-enacting "Eight Fairies crossing the Ocean," when another stilt walker, wearing the costume of the Bull Devil from Journey to the West, comes and beats them all up, that is until Master Ching puts on a Monkey King mask for a moment (who, in the tale, defeats the Bull Devil), then fights him, all on stilts. Great stuff.
But the best fight in the film is between Yuen Wu and Ching, in a room full of traps which Master Ching carefully prepared to capture the ninja. Spears flying everywhere, walls opening and closing, a cage drops from the ceiling. Strategem follows strategem, until you are exhausted with admiration.
Despite the excellent action, the movie doesn't quite hold together a cohesive narrative. The dramatic story arc comes to an end, but it's not until after that ending that Master Ching and Yuen Wu are able to reconcile with each other. And only then, it's because, inexplicably, Yuen Wu can suddenly speak and understand Chinese, even though he never spoke a word of it for the entire film. All this at one hour, twenty-two minutes in. "Go to Hell!" Yuen Wu shouts, in Chinese. Ching is suprised. "Ah! So you speak Chinese?" By way of explanation, Yuen Wu replies, "So What? I also know Chinese boxing!" and switches kung fu style. End of explanation. And then the "Master of God Skill" shows up, and they fight, but the scene has a sort of tacked on, pointless quality to it. It was as if they made the movie, said, "Oh, crap, it's too short," and ad-libbed an extra ten minutes. It gained an extra amount of pointlessness for me because the subtitles on my copy of the film just abruptly stopped for the last few scenes. It wasn't hard to follow anyway, though I'm still not certain why the "Master of God Skill" ends up using a bowling ball as his weapon. But it hardly matters, Ninja in the Dragon's Den is still a classic. It has a wonderful beginning, a solid middle, and a pointless but fun ending, and the themesong gets reprised throughout. Shaka-Ninja!
Update: Let's all bow for a moment to the altar of youtube. Thanks Norman for the heads up.
Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.