I accidentally wiped the hard drive that contained all my films the other day (rips of legally owned DVDs, you guys) so I’ve been going through the long and annoying process of getting them all back. Part of that was the long-neglected section of kung-fu films – stuff I’d watched as a teenager and in my early 20s, but had been largely ignored since. Anyway, I realised I’d never seen this, and the reviews seemed to state it was a classic, so here goes.
And another thing – thank you Youtube!
Heck, this copy is better quality than my old old DVD.
I have been trying to write a brief summary of the plot of this film, but the more I think about it, the more I realise it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even for a kung fu film. It starts with a group which seem like they’re good guys but are outlaws, and they’re about to have a scrap with a group of guys dressed in white, who seem to all the world like they’re the baddies. This is to decide something or other – either who’s the best, or if the outlaws can continue to do crimes. The various members of the groups take it in turns to fight, and it seems that the guys in white are winning 8-0 in the best of ten format, until one of their fellas loses and he, in an “honourable” move, guts himself. So I guess I was wrong about which side was which?
The last guy isn’t even part of the gang, he’s a Japanese samurai, brought in as some sort of ringer by the…bad?…guys, and he successfully fights a few of the guys in white until he also misses a strike, and by his own wacky logic, kills himself too. But before he does he poisons the boss of the guys in white, and tells them his friend will be back to kick their asses.
So far, so good. Nice bit of fighting, characters have been sort-of established and the battle lines are drawn. Then, things go a bit odd. There’s usually a moment in films like this where I get the feeling I spaced out for ten minutes, or my cat jumped on my chest and demanded attention, and I missed a crucial bit of plot. But it’s my job as a film reviewer to navigate these deep waters for you, so here goes.
The guys in white, who are the Alliance of Martial Artists, have decided to go and defeat the Five Element Ninjas (this film’s actual, not quite as cool title outside the USA) – gold, fire, water, wood and earth. The reason for this is either so they can get the powers of these ninjas in order to beat the apparently invincible King of the Ninjas, or because he gets his power from them and they want to weaken him. Or possibly so they can learn ninjutsu, the technique that is too powerful for them. I really don’t want to be vague here, I just couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.
They divide into groups of two – two each for each of the elements, and the last two guys to defend the clan boss, who is using his martial arts mind powers to defeat the poison in his body. We then get one of those amazing extended sequences that this genre of film is famous for. Wuxia is the name for fantastic kung fu films, where there’s magic and weirdness and garish coloured fights, and this film is a prime example. We see the groups of Alliance members go to take on the five elements, and to a man they get killed. It’s embarrassing how badly they get whupped, but as I didn’t recognise any of them, while the guy who stayed behind at the camp is a Hong Kong star of yesteryear, I figured out how it was going to go.
It gets worse for the Alliance, as the woman they rescued from being beaten by her father and gave a place to live, turned out to be a spy who let the Ninja king, his ninja followers and the outlaws from the beginning of the film, in to their base to kill the main Alliance master and take over. Ninja King turns on the crime-boss fella, for reasons which remain stubbornly out of reach. And what sort of over-the-top revenge is slaughtering an entire clan because they beat you in a fight, didn’t kill or arrest you and just wanted you to stop doing crimes?
So begins part two of the film. Our hero decides he needs to power up, after literally everyone he knows has been murdered. So, off he pops to a mysterious teacher of Ninjutsu, who he was friendly with from before. He joins up with a bunch of the teacher’s other students, and after a nice training montage to show him learning the new style, they go to take on the Five Elements.
Again, because I don’t think this point can be stressed enough, absolutely no reason is given for anyone to want to bother with the five elements. They’re supernaturally tough, and aren’t bothering anyone! Just minding their own business, doing whatever a representation of an element does, and some guys in white come along to kick their ass. If they have any relation to the king of the Ninja, apart from him showing up at the end to defend the last element, then it’s certainly never mentioned.
The first four of the five elements crumble like a Weetabix in a vice, and then it’s on to the last one. The reasoning of it all isn’t important – yes, the good guys win – but the style of the fights is what’s important. There’s some fantastically bonkers choreography, which is the reason this film is so fondly remembered by fans of wuxia and kung-fu films. It’s blindingly fast, magic-powered and although it’s pretty cheaply done (the sets at the end look like a poor theatre production) you’d struggle not to enjoy this film.