For their first release, new martial arts DVD label Greenfan have made the interesting decision to unearth “Ninja in Ancient China”, a relatively obscure outing most notable for being the final effort from legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, best known for such classics as “The One Armed Swordsman”, “Five Deadly Venoms”, “Crippled Avengers” and countless others. Made during his final period of film making in Mainland China, long after he had left the famed studio behind, it was originally released in 1993, and serves as a reminder that his career actually lasted a lot longer than many might think.
Whilst neither this, nor indeed any of his later films have ever attracted the same kind of attention or worship as his Shaw productions, this is by no means to suggest that they are necessarily inferior, with Chang still showing his obvious talent for the genre and indeed managing to add something a little different to the formula for which he was so well known.
As expected, the plot is pretty familiar stuff and draws heavily upon a number of Chang’s previous films, in particular his last Shaw Brothers hit, the excellent “Five Element Ninja”. To be fair, the narrative is reasonably complex, although as usual it basically boils down to a tale of revenge, as master of elemental martial arts Taoist Yu is killed by the cruel general Suen Cheuk, leading his students to make the usual righteous oaths to bring the murderous despot to bloody justice. Since the general is heavily guarded in his fortress home, two of the brightly coloured apprentices are sent to infiltrate his staff, hoping to assassinate him when his guard is down. Unfortunately, they find themselves conflicted after their foe and his wife treat them with surprising kindness, resulting in a difficult and painful moral choice.
Where “Ninja in Ancient China” really stands out from Chang’s Shaw films is in its location work. Away from the confines of the ever-recognisable studio sets, he was here able to stretch his wings somewhat, employing real historical buildings (including an actual castle), and allowing his camera to move more freely and naturalistically. This makes a real difference, adding a certain air of authenticity, which though undermined somewhat by the sadly shabby production values and garishly bright costumes gives the film a welcome gritty edge. Chang uses the scenery well to stage plenty of intense martial arts action, aided by some stalwart choreography from Tung Chi Hua (“Kung Fu Hustle”) and although the film does get off to a slow start, once it picks up steam it makes for very entertaining viewing. Whilst the heroic protagonists go through the motions of the usual noble sacrifices and angst-ridden declarations of vengeance (along with a disconcertingly inappropriate amount of giggling), they are a pretty dull bunch, and the supposedly villainous Suen Cheuk is arguably the most interesting and complex character in the film. Through him, the film enjoys a surprising level of emotional depth, and though the ending is clearly signposted from early on, it does have a vaguely tragic feel.
It has to be said that the DVD quality is not particularly great and is likely to disappoint viewers expecting something along the lines of the ongoing Shaw Brothers remasters, with the print suffering from a fair amount of graininess and flickering. This in itself is not so much of a problem given that the film is a fairly low budget affair, though the subtitles are at times rather stretched and blurred, at times partly disappearing off the edge of the screen. Seemingly being the original release subtitles (with Chinese subtitles above), the translations are frequently quite poor, with a number of spelling mistakes. Even more annoying is the fact that not only are there are no subtitles for the onscreen text which appears to introduce new characters and such, of which the film has a lot, but that when this text appears it generally interrupts the subtitles themselves, meaning that the viewer misses out on a good few lines of dialogue.
However, given the obscurity of the source material, this is perhaps to be expected and Greenfan are certainly to be applauded for rescuing the film from languishing in the vaults. Although not really among Chang’s best works, the eminently watchable “Ninja in Ancient China” is an interesting and entertaining effort, and still stands as a must see for fans, and indeed should be enjoyed by all devotees of good old -fashioned martial arts action.
Chang Cheh (director) / Chang Cheh (screenplay)
CAST: Tung Chi Hua, Mu Li Xin, Tu Yu Ming, Chiang Ker Shing, Na Ta Ker, Chen Er Gong, Cheng Ya Lin, Lin Ying Jun