While browsing through the Netflix streaming library recently, consumed with the sort lingering hangover of 2020 ennui so many of us are still experiencing, I saw something that immediately snapped me out of my funk. I had forgotten, and understandably so, that the world’s largest streamer actually has a decent little array of classic Hong Kong kung fu films of the 1970s and 1980s streaming on its platform. This is a style of film I’m more likely to associate with the boundless, impossible to navigate library of Amazon Prime Video, but seeing some of these stone-cold classics of the genre (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms, Legendary Weapons of China, etc) warmed my heart. Those few I just mentioned are some of the most beloved kung fu classics ever made, and I love that they’re right there on Netflix, potentially exposing new fans to a film style they’ve never seriously experienced in the past.
And then I saw one more movie, and I couldn’t help but smile: 1982’s Five Elements Ninjas. And suddenly I had plans for the evening.
Five Elements Ninjas is a “classic” in the same sense that Road House or Cobra are “classics” of their own eras and genres. It’s an absolutely ludicrous, completely over the top, lovably deranged beat-em-up farce of the variety that was affectionately dubbed “chop-socky” in the U.S. after the genre was first popularized by 1973’s Five Fingers of Death. It contains absolutely zero attempt at gravitas, drama or believability. What it does have is ninjas disguised as trees, people being torn limb from limb, and a man flicking a ring off his finger so hard that it embeds itself in another dude’s skull. It plays like something between a live-action version of Itchy & Scratchy, or an excerpt from Power Rangers where the heroes start disemboweling the Putties instead of comically karate chopping them.
In other words, this movie is kung fu entertainment of the very highest order, and you absolutely owe it to yourself to enjoy it to the fullest extent while it’s been made so readily available.
Feel free to stop reading now, and simply go watch Five Elements Ninjas. But if you want to be further sold on the idea, allow me to do just that.
Chang Cheh, Hong Kong Kung Fu, And Colorful Ninjas
Director/screenwriter Chang Cheh, sometimes referred to as “the godfather of Hong Kong cinema,” was an extremely prolific filmmaker who rose to prominence during the upwelling of wuxia (swordplay) and martial arts films that became extremely popular in Chinese cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Paying his dues behind the scenes, he eventually moved on to directing, and—after 1967’s extremely influential One-Armed Swordsman—became one of the most famous directors of martial arts movies in the world. Working for the iconic Shaw Brothers Studio, he churned out nearly 100 martial arts movies in the next two decades—an insanely high work flow era. His films in certain eras are routinely connected by reappearing stars—first David Chiang and Ti Lung in early 1970s movies like The Duel or Boxer From Shantung, and then the Venom Mob group of collaborators (Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Chiang Sheng, etc) in movies like the aforementioned Five Deadly Venoms and the even more spectacular Crippled Avengers.
Cheh’s films often revolved around simple themes of brotherhood, betrayal and honor, with simplistic plotlines that prioritized action and physical virtuosity above all else, but many of the director’s films are also truly beautiful to look at in terms of their demanding choreography, vivid colors and inventive cinematography. Indeed, his works have been cited as huge inspirations by countless modern action movie masters, from Robert Rodriguez and John Woo to Quentin Tarantino. The latter, in fact, dedicated Kill Bill: Volume 2 to Cheh, while Woo worked directly for Cheh as an assistant director on numerous films. In doing so, Cheh was literally helping to train the generation of filmmakers who would eventually replace him.
Which brings us to Five Elements Ninjas. This film hails from the end of Cheh’s career directing bigger budget martial arts films, and it shows—not because the director’s powers are in some way diminished, but because the tone and content has been so altered (or “heightened”) from his classic works that it may be a little bit shocking to those who are familiar with mid-1970s Hong Kong kung fu. Here in 1982, you can feel a distinct desperation in the air—the feel of producers breathing down the director’s neck, worried that period piece “kung fu movies” had fallen out of fashion. And the response was apparently to make Five Elements Ninjas as violent, absurd and gruesome as possible in an effort to recapture some of the attention that was being stolen away.
The producers weren’t wrong, by the way—after more than a decade of intense repetition in the late 1960s and 1970s, the cookie cutter kung fu movies (often period pieces in the 17th and 18th century) so popular during the 1970s were definitely falling out of favor by the early 1980s. It wasn’t that martial arts movies were going away; rather the “historical” kung fu movie featuring traditional Chinese martial arts was being replaced by a newer breed of irreverent kung fu comedy set in the modern day, with newly emerging stars such as Jackie Chan and directors like Sammo Hung. The period piece films, meanwhile, morphed into even more elaborate wuxia fantasies, while action films became the gangster-filled shootout classics of John Woo and others. And so, even something so crazy entertaining as Five Elements Ninjas seemed very dated to Hong Kong audiences in 1982, and the filmmakers were clearly trying to compensate by pushing the boundaries on violence and shock value.
And oh my, the stuff they manage to cram into this film. The story of Five Elements Ninjas is extremely basic: A clan of evil Japanese ninjas based on the five Chinese elements (Fire, Earth, Wood, Water, Gold) is hired to exterminate a group of valorous Chinese martial artists, the sole survivor of whom seeks revenge. It’s a nationalistic dichotomy that is seen in countless other films of the era, pitting Japan against China, but what makes Five Elements Ninjas stand out is the particularly absurd costuming and depictions of the ninjas themselves, and the shocking violence with which they are dispatched.
Each group of elemental ninjas here has their own gimmick, collectively forming what TV Tropes would no doubt refer to as a classic example of the Quirky Miniboss Squad. The “gold” ninjas, for instance, are wrapped in what looks like golden tin foil and wear shimmering metallic hats that they can spin to blind and disorient their opponents … before said hats also launch deadly darts. The “wood” ninjas wear fake tree costumes, complete with arms disguised as branches for grabbing ahold of their quarry. The “earth” ninjas can cause the ground to literally part in front of them like it’s water, swimming through solid earth like they’re sandworms in Beetlejuice. And the “water” ninjas … well, presumably they can swim really well. It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that Cheh and co. go truly all-out on the action sequences, which mix genuinely impressive choreography and coordination in multi-person group battles with comical overkill in the blood and guts department. You’ve got kung fu fighters tripping over their own intestines, ninjas being quartered with chains like it’s a Mortal Kombat fatality, and one guy who gets physically ripped in half during the denouement. It’s as if the Shaw Bros. suddenly got some creative contributions from Lloyd Kaufman and the folks over at Troma Entertainment, except with less scatalogical and sexual humor. It makes for a hilariously uneven tone in Five Elements Ninjas, as the plot-driven scenes feel pretty much exactly like the standard for the genre, while the action is much more colorfully absurd and violent. It should go without saying that the only way to watch this movie is with the bad English dubbing enabled, given that it provides even more camp value.
I’ll note also that thanks to the relatively higher visual standards of modern streaming content, the cut of the film now available on Netflix likely looks better than any fuzzy VHS rip or legitimate DVD that has ever been released of Five Elements Ninjas in the past—visual acuity that would have been unheard of in Hong Kong when the film was released in 1982. There’s no better time to witness the absurd spectacle for yourself than right now. Trust me when I say that it’s like an iron claw, blissfully coated in serotonin, being raked across the most sensitive regions of one’s brain. If you’re tired of taking your entertainment so seriously, go check out Five Elements Ninjas tonight.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.