Imagine walking into a kitchen and finding a dish halted in progress: Root veggies idling by a blazing oven; pork belly wrapped in butcher paper on the countertop; mustard, salt, pepper, canola oil, spices waiting for their chance to season the meal. Imagine being tasked with figuring out what exactly the chef had in mind before abruptly retiring. That’s about where the folks at Vinegar Syndrome found themselves in their efforts to restore New York Ninja, John Liu’s forsaken 1984 camp action movie, a curio mostly lost to memory, mentioned only in whispers by genre aficionados, that’s now finally seeing the light of day for the first time ever.
Vinegar Syndrome specializes in the celebration, preservation and restoration of genre movies; giving beaten-up old movies much-deserved polish and TLC isn’t new for them. It’s what they’ve done since putting three lost Herschell Gordon Lewis sexploitation films in a boxed set in 2013. Such archival work—and it is just that—reminds us that propriety isn’t the standard by which movies should be deemed as worthy of safekeeping. Losing any movie to time’s ravages is a loss to cinema as a whole, and, put simply, you are not a preservationist if you don’t care whether grungy trashterpieces are protected from rot or not. Vinegar Syndrome cares.
New York Ninja is the exact kind of movie Vinegar Syndrome exists to restore, a no-budget production funded by boundless enthusiasm and fueled by joy, where cheese bursts through the seams in such a way that even the lactose tolerant might want to chug lactase enzymes before watching. Liu plays Liu, a sound tech for a local NYC news station. He’s having a great day as the film starts, handing off a gift to his wife on her birthday, who gives Liu a gift in return: She’s pregnant! Everything’s comin’ up Liu! But it’s 1980s New York City. No sooner do the lovebirds part than a violent gang slits her throat and stabs her stomach when she witnesses them doing crime on the streets. Liu wants justice. If the NYPD won’t give it to him, he’ll have to take matters into his own hands. Fortunately, he’s not just a sound tech: He’s a ninja.
New York Ninja satisfies a very specific film geek demographic: Viewers who see value in the non-professional and the DIY, who went out and shot Peter Jackson homages on their college campuses in their salad days, and who recognize that at one point or another even the greats of cinema got their starts making B-movies: Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, John Sayles. Couldn’t Liu have grown into a great in his own right?
Liu stepped away from show business not long after filming wrapped on New York Ninja, so we know the answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean New York Ninja shouldn’t see release on 4K, with a pending theatrical run scheduled for sometime in 2022. In fact New York Ninja reads like a glance into what might have been if Liu had stuck with the movies. It’s rare to see unbridled delight in every frame of any contemporary genre film, especially contemporary genre films that set out to attain cult status ignorant of the reality that “cult” isn’t a title that’s bought but one that’s earned. New York Ninja puts on no such airs. It just is, and it’s a glorious experience as a result.
For Vinegar Syndrome’s Kurtis Spieler, that experience started in the editing room. When Spieler found out the company had New York Ninja’s original unedited footage in its archive, he jumped at the opportunity to finish it himself and sought out a budget from his bosses. “Being a restoration company, they loved the idea,” Spieler says. “So, I went to work for nearly two years in order to finish this movie and bring it back from film obscurity.”
That meant assembling a cast of vocal talent to re-record every line of dialogue while also adding music and sound effects that fit the period. Vinegar Syndrome had the footage, but the original audio was lost. But that suited Spieler just fine: He walked into the project assuming the role of “filmmaker” instead of “restorer.” (One of the film’s producers has said elsewhere they reached out to Liu regarding the project, and that he did not want to be involved.)
“I treated the film as if a producer or someone came to me and said that they had an unfinished movie from a failed production and they needed me to figure out how to finish it,” Spieler explains. “Approaching it from that perspective meant that I wasn’t as concerned with trying to restore the movie to its original intended version, as it was obvious that there were a lot of production issues that prevented the original version from being finished in the first place.”
Spieler’s perspective afforded him freedom that he might otherwise have lost if he’d seen the job simply as restorative. Assuming the role of the artist, meant he could make creative choices in the pursuit of making the best version of Liu’s vision possible. That effort pays off in the finished film: New York Ninja looks crisp and clean, capturing Liu’s athleticism as easily as it showcases his cheeky sense of humor. You will see slicker demonstrations of martial arts action in the genre, but the bravado necessary to shoot backflips or forward vaults with shoestrings holding an entire production together is breathtaking.
Liu’s ego isn’t the star, of course, but the man knows his way around action. Before making New York Ninja, Liu had already starred in and directed stone-cold martial arts classics, à la The Invincible Armour, Zen Kwan Do Strikes Paris, and Made in China. As New York Ninja is a cult film by virtue of time and circumstance rather than self-proscription, so, too, is Liu a genuine martial arts hero, and like many genuine martial arts heroes, he has a mischievous comic streak running alongside his ass-kicking side. When, while staking out the streets with a pair of his TV news colleagues, a gaggle of costumed cartoon character thugs assault two women, and the anchorwoman uselessly exclaims, “Oh no! Somebody help!”, Liu (whose character had stepped away for a sandwich) appears in ninja garb to beat the bad guys senseless. Mission accomplished. When the mysterious white-garbed vigilante disappears, Liu reappears, lunch in hand. “Did I miss anything?” he asks, so pleased with himself that a cat holding a canary would look humble in comparison. “Yes, you did,” his coworkers reply in concert. Cue Liu’s feigned chagrin. D’oh! What a goof!
Lest anyone think that completing an incomplete movie when you have all the footage at your fingertips is easy, though, hearken the tone. New York Ninja’s character lives in the footage, but it’s also baked into Liu’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. Nurturing another person’s aesthetic requires caution. “I was very aware of trying to maintain what I thought was the intended spirit or tone of the original production,” Spieler says. “I knew there was a fair amount of both intentional and unintentional humor to the movie, but I tried to take the project seriously and be respectful to the original source material as well as other movies from the same time period.”
Liu filmed New York Ninja in the age of The Ninja Trilogy, comprising Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja and Sam Firstenberg’s Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination, as well as Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars, Eric Karson’s The Octagon, and countless others. Spieler couldn’t get in Liu’s head and know with 100% certainty how he wanted each scene to play out, but he could use movies of New York Ninja’s make and model as secondary reference points—and of course he could rely on his own judgments as a restorer and, most of all, as a filmmaker.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.